BILOXI — Minor League Baseball is a step closer to being in Biloxi.
Gov. Phil Bryant, Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway and local officials on Thursday announced plans to build a $36 million Minor League Baseball stadium in downtown Biloxi.
The plans call for the stadium to be ready for the start of the 2014 Southern League season in April, but no team was announced. It is highly expected the only team that would make a direct move would be Huntsville, Ala., but there are other scenarios in acquiring a team.
Bryant unveiled preliminary architectural designs for the stadium, which will be built on what is now a employee parking lot for the Beau Rivage casino, directly across from the casino’s parking garage on U.S. 90.
The 7,000-seat stadium will be built by Dale Partners architects, which has offices in Jackson and Biloxi. Plans call for it to eventually include a parking garage, entertainment area and hotel overlooking the playing field.
On May 14, the Biloxi City Council announced its intent to issue up to $21 million in bonds to construct a new baseball stadium on the site. Barring any significant opposition, the council is expected to finalize the bond decision at its June 18 meeting.
The remaining $15 million will come from BP oil spill settlement as a tourism investment.
“The oil spill of 2010 had a significant impact in Mississippi, especially to our coastal tourism,” Gov. Bryant said. “This stadium will be a major regional asset for South Mississippi and will be an exciting new attraction for our residents and tourists of Mississippi’s Gulf Coast.”
In 2012, Bryant began working with a baseball ownership group, led by team owner Ken Young, to identify a suitable site and potential financing for a stadium development. Young, a former minor league executive of the year and owner of four minor league baseball franchises, is in the process of purchasing an existing minor league team and relocating the team to Biloxi.
“I believe Biloxi will be an excellent location for minor league baseball,” Young said. “The community will immensely enjoy the sports and entertainment. The venue will be one of the best in baseball, and the region will take great pride in it.”
The Gulf Coast Business Council’s research foundation estimates the stadium development will spur an additional $10 million annually in visitor spending on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
Tim Bennett of Overtime Sports — the catalyst in enticing the Atlanta Braves to move their Double-A team to Mississippi in 2004 — has been trying to bring baseball to the Gulf Coast for the last nine years.
Since he delivered the Mississippi Braves to Pearl, Bennett made four unsuccessful attempts to put a Southern League team on the Gulf Coast — whether it be on the Back Bay, the Gulf side or the Port of Gulfport.
“When I finished the Braves deal in 2004, the mayor down there said let’s give it a shot,” said Bennett. “Little did we know that we would have the worst natural disaster (Hurricane Katrina) and the worst man-made disaster (BP oil spill) and then a recession.”
But the big difference this year is the Beau Rivage.
“Without them, none of this would happen,” said Bennett. “It has taken the cooperation of city and county and state and the Beau Rivage collectively with me and my partners to relocate a team.”
The connection between professional baseball and the casino does not violate any problems, Bennett said.
“There can’t be any ownership, of which there won’t be,” said Bennett.
“Beau Rivage is essentially giving the land to the city, and their hands are pretty much off the deal. We don’t have any relationships with them other than the fact they’ll be doing some advertising and sponsorships, as will the other casinos. We expect a healthy relationship with the casinos.”
“There is no problem as far as leasing from the casino,” said Steve Densa, executive director of communications with Minor League Baseball.
“We’re pushing for 2014,” Bennett said before the announcement. “We are in very forward discussions right now for 2014.”
Playing in the 10-team Southern League would put Biloxi in the same league with the Mississippi Braves, and close to rivals on the Gulf Coast in Mobile and Pensacola.
The Huntsville Stars, an affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers, seem to be the most logical team to relocate. They are playing in the league’s oldest stadium, built in 1985, and have been last in the league in attendance for four consectuive years. In past years, Milwaukee officials have expressed concern about the stadium and its ability to provide adequate player development.
The Milwaukee Brewers affiliate signed a two-year lease in 2012. The lease is a key factor in relocating a team.
“The league won’t allow a team to break a lease and walk away from the stadium,” said Bennett. “That’s part of the trick, because the difficulty is having a city ready to build at the right time, and a team in another city ready to get out of its lease.”
This year, Huntsville’s average attendance is 2,007, slightly ahead of Jackson, Tenn., which is averaging 1,724. Birmingham with its new $64 million stadium leads the league in attendance with 5,460.
Another possibility is a move by either Birmingham or Jacksonville, Fla., and replacing one of those teams with a Triple-A squad. Both cities are lobbying to step up to Triple-A baseball, which is one step from the Major Leagues.
When contacted about the plans for Biloxi, Southern League president Lori Webb would not comment, saying she was aware of the developments, but would not discuss or speculate on any hypothetical situations.
But first, the stadium must be built.
It will be built in the city block bounded by Interstate 110, U.S. 90, Howard Avenue and Caillavet Street.
It’s a small area for a stadium, and some wonder how it’s going to fit it in that space.
“That’s the first question I had,” Bennett said. “It’s going to be a tight fit, but it’s like other stadiums in an urban setting, most of them fit right into a block. And we don’t have to do any major adjustments to the outfield fence like they did in someplace like Boston.
“The field dimensions will be much like Trustmark Park.”
“We plan to have a bowling alley and entertainment center similar to a Dave & Buster’s restaurant concept with something for kids and family. It’ll have a sports bar, bowling alley, restaurant and a theater — a small theater, not a big theater.”
And he thinks it can be ready in a year.
“El Paso imploded its old city hall and just finished cleaning it up, and they’re building a Triple-A stadium for 2104,” said Bennett. “We have a Double-A stadium, and we don’t have to blow anything up.
By comparison, ground was broken at Trustmark Park in Pearl on May 11, 2004, and it war ready for the start of the 2005 season the next April.
“We have a lot of advantages, and we have a lot of hurdles.”