For nine years, Tim Bennett has been trying to provide Biloxi with a minor league baseball team. Since he delivered the Mississippi Braves to Pearl, he has 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 his current attempt may be his most viable.
The director of Overtime Sports has the land and he has the commitment of the city of Biloxi. Bennett and his partners appear close to pulling a deal together that could put a Southern League team in Biloxi to start the 2014 season next April.
“We’re pushing for 2014,” Bennett said over the weekend as he watched the high school baseball playoffs from the Farm Bureau Grill at Trustmark Park in Pearl. “We are in very forward discussions right now for 2014.”
On May 14, The Biloxi City Council passed resolution calling for the city to purchase a $21 million general obligation bond toward construction a multi-million dollar on land leased from the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino. The 7,000-seat stadium would cost about $35 million and will be constructed in what is now the employee parking lot across the street from the casino parking garage.
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 partners to relocate a team.”
While none of this is final, plans are moving forward in anticipation of a formal announcement.
The first step is building the stadium — and building it soon.
Bennett said sketches are almost ready. A stadium would be built in the city block bounded by Interstate 110, U.S. 90, Howard Avenue and Caillavet Street. It’s directly across from the Beau Rivage parking garage entrance.
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.”
Bennett said the stadium would be in the middle of the block, probably flanked in the future by a parking garage on the south side and a hotel future retail and entertainment on the north side.
“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.”
Bennett estimates the stadium price tag will be in the $35 million range, but would not disclose his other funding sources. And he thinks the stadium 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.”
While Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball are careful about its non-association guidelines with the gambling world, this transaction does not violate any guidelines.
“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.
Densa also said placing a team in Biloxi does not violate any territorial rights with the Southern League’s Mobile team. “There must be at least 15 miles between the county lines of the two teams,” he said. The 40-plus mile width of Jackson County more than takes care of that issue.
And then there’s the issue of a team, about which Bennett would not speculate.
“I really can’t say right now. That will come later,” he said.
Finding a team with an owner that’s willing to move, and is near the end of its stadium lease is key to the move.
“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.”
The worst-supported team in the Southern League is the Huntsville Stars, which has finished last in attendance for four consecutive years, but its owner has been determined to keep the team in Huntsville. The Milwaukee Brewers affiliate signed a two-year lease in 2012. Another team that has been the topic of relocation rumors in the past has been the Generals of Jackson, Tenn., but they have eight years remaining on their 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.
But relocations are always as simple as a team packing up and moving out of town. Teams are sometimes part of a “double-switch,” to borrow a baseball term. The Pensacola Blue Wahoos surprised many when the Cincinnati Reds farm club moved from Zebulon, N.C., two years ago. They were replaced by a Single-A team. Sometimes promoters will move a team, and replace it with an independent team.
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.
Meanwhile, Biloxi might benefit from Bennett’s past experiences.
“It should be noted that the Atlanta Braves front office has been very instrumental in making sure Mississippi got a shot at a second team,” said Bennett. “What I mean by that is they went out of their way and there’s nothing in it for them. They enjoy their relationship in Mississippi, and they are big advocates for Mississippi getting another team.
“So it’s paid off having the Braves here in more ways than one.”