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By The Bakersfield Californian
BY JOHN COX Californian staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org
Efforts to raise $30 million to build a new baseball stadium for the Bakersfield Blaze have fallen short, throwing the franchise’s future — and possibly the surrounding mixed-use development project — into question.
The team’s owners said Monday they have raised $18 million from local individuals but were unable to secure the balance because the privately financed project offers too small a return on investment.
While owners Gene Voiland and Chad Hathaway held out hope for a bottom of the ninth rally, what happens next depends on the team’s former owner, an Indiana businessman who contractually has the option to buy back the team by the end of this month if the stadium project fell through.
The former owner, D.G. Elmore, wrote in an email that he has made no decisions but that he had been expecting the current owners to build the stadium.
“There is no plan B for a ballpark and professional baseball in Bakersfield,” he wrote. “Gene and Chad's plan was the only plan.”
Monday’s announcement that the stadium “appears to be very unlikely” disappointed one of the project’s biggest supporters, Bakersfield City Manager Alan Tandy. He has tried for more than a decade to attract a new stadium to the city, and had applauded the Blaze’s efforts to build one with strictly private financing.
“I was optimistic about these folks, hoping that they could pull it off,” Tandy said. “And, you know, if they weren’t able to, I think it’s going to be very difficult, I think” to bring a new stadium to town.
The project, unveiled publicly in November, was to be part of Bakersfield Commons, a 255-acre retail, office and residential project at Coffee and Brimhall roads.
The 3,500-seat stadium was to be the centerpiece of a family entertainment complex complete with restaurants and stores, and possibly a movie theater. Originally, the opening date was set for next year.
But in June, Voiland and Hathaway announced that the project would be delayed by one year, owing to a number of undisclosed complications.
Finances were the biggest hurdle. While a number of local supporters pledged money in hopes of bringing a community asset to the city, the team’s owners were unable to attract financial support from outsiders.
One reason was the moving target. Hathaway said the project’s cost rose by 50 percent to $30 million as the price tags for various components came to light.
“You’ve got certain amenities that people want to see,” he said, including an open concourse, that contributed to higher costs.
“We could build a Sam Lynn West, but that wasn’t going to accomplish anything,” he said, referring to the team’s existing ballpark, built in 1941.
Another reason for the delay was the need to achieve an average attendance of 3,200, up from the initial estimate of 2,500. During the 2012 season, the average attendance at the 70 Blaze home games was 637 ticket buyers. Average attendance for the 2013 season was not available.
The Blaze, a Class A advanced minor league affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds, finished last in the five-team California League (North) during 2013.
Just as important was the projected return on investment: between 4 percent and 7 percent, Hathaway said. Usually, a 10 percent return on investment is the minimum necessary to attract capital for such projects.
“We told people that if that’s what you’re investing in, this is not an investment for you,” Voiland said.
Both owners thanked the local supporters who committed money to the project as a “legacy investment” more than as a way to make money.
The company behind the Bakersfield Commons project, World Oil, issued a statement Monday that it was sorry the Blaze were unable to raise the needed money. But the company also noted that there remains “considerable interest from the development community” in moving forward with the larger mixed-use project.
“While we felt that a new stadium would be complementary to the retail district, the Blaze ownership’s decision does not alter our approach and commitment to the project,” World Oil’s statement read.
Tandy agreed that the Commons project does not hinge on the stadium. He noted that World Oil recently gave the city $1.4 million as part of the development proposal’s traffic mitigation obligation.
“I have no reason to believe that the Bakersfield Commons has any problem, other than timing” related to real estate market conditions.
Voiland and Hathaway said it is now up to Elmore to decide whether to exercise his option — written into the 2012 purchase agreement — to buy back the team at the same price for which he bought it. That option, good through Oct. 31, applied only if the stadium came off the table.
Both Blaze owners said they have not decided what to do if Elmore chooses not to take back the team, which Hathaway said is operating at a loss.
“If he doesn’t move on that, we have the team and we’ll have to evaluate our options,” Hathaway said. “But right now, the ball’s in his court.”