Local News

Monday, Oct 14 2013 03:28 PM

Previous owner reclaims the Blaze; league looking for a new city

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    By Autumn Parry / The Californian

    Robert Stephenson, pitcher for the Bakersfield Blaze, pitches during warm-ups before his debut game vs. Visalia at Sam Lynn Ballpark in this July file photo.

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    By John Harte / The Californian

    Dodger shortstop Hanley Ramirez makes rehab start for Rancho Cucamonga against Bakersfield Blaze in this May 2013 file photo. Hanley Ramirez filled the house at Sam Lynn Ball Park. The Blaze catcher is Yovan Gonzalez and the umpire is Matt Czajak.

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BY JOHN COX Californian staff writer jcox@bakersfield.com

The California League began looking for a new home city for the Bakersfield Blaze Monday after failed efforts to build a new stadium here prompted an Indiana businessman to reclaim ownership of the team.

D.G. Elmore announced Monday he is retaking possession from Bakersfield oil executives Gene Voiland and Chad Hathaway, who said last week they were unable to raise enough money to build a $30 million, 3,500-seat stadium at Coffee and Brimhall roads.

That means the California League will immediately begin looking for a new home for the Blaze outside Bakersfield because Sam Lynn Ball Park does not meet professional baseball standards, league President Charlie Blaney said.

“We wish we didn’t have to look elsewhere because our hope has always been to stay in Bakersfield,” Blaney said, adding he holds out hope that money to build a new stadium will come forward.

Nevertheless, Monday’s release from Elmore says the Blaze will return to Sam Lynn — Bakersfield’s flawed, aging stadium along Chester Avenue — on April 3, opening day of the 2014 season.

It’s unclear what new city could be found by the California League. There is no California city with a suitable stadium in place that would be necessary for a quick relocation. Another community would have to step up and build a facility that meets minor league stadium requirements.

Elmore said Monday that the funding shortfall for the proposed new stadium on Coffee Rd. was at the center of his decision to reclaim the team. The shortfall was $12 million, or 40 percent.

“I had every hope that Gene and Chad would build a great new ballpark for the Bakersfield community,” Elmore wrote in a news release.

“Since they were unable to complete that ballpark project and chose not to pay a loan that was due to me for the purchase of the team, I have decided to move back into control of this storied franchise in a tremendous city, and I’m extremely excited to see what the future holds.”

Hathaway responded by issuing a statement Monday that he and Voiland had an option to offer the team back to Elmore — at the price they paid for it — if they did not build a new stadium.

“All of our financial obligations have been met,” Hathaway stated, adding that he and Voiland are working to make sure the change of ownership proceeds smoothly.

Blaney agreed that Voiland and Hathaway “did not default on any payment.” He said that the pair’s decision not to make a scheduled Oct. 1 loan payment to Elmore triggered a buy-back option in the transaction.

Last Monday, Voiland and Hathaway announced the stadium had become “very unlikely” because financiers outside Bakersfield were unimpressed with the proposed return on investment of 4 percent and 7 percent. A 10 percent return is considered minimal to warrant investment.

In their announcement, the two partners said they were leaving it up to Elmore to decide what would become of the Blaze, even as they continued to entertain offers to raise the remaining $12 million.

Besides the Blaze, Elmore’s company owns five other minor league teams. Only one — the Inland Empire 66ers — is also part of the California League, the 10-team Class A league that includes the Blaze.

Elmore originally bought the Blaze in 2005.

Hathaway and Voiland had proposed to finance the new stadium with entirely private money, making it the league’s first in recent years to be built without public subsidies.

Unveiling their plans publicly Nov. 1, they said it would be the focus of a family entertainment complex inside Bakersfield Commons, a 255-acre retail, office and residential complex.

But last summer, they moved the stadium’s grand opening back a year to spring 2015, saying there were a number of unspecified details to be worked out.

Bakersfield Commons, which has been thrown years off its schedule by the recession, continues to move forward and is now working to find a developer, according to a Friday statement from its owner, South Gate-based World Oil Corp.

“Although Bakersfield Commons regrets that the Bakersfield Blaze ownership determined that it was not feasible for them to move forward with the new stadium at the Commons, this has not impacted our ultimate goal of bringing a transformational new destination to Bakersfield,” the statement read.

Hathaway and Voiland reported investing about $800,000 in improvements at Sam Lynn. Team records show that last year, attendance rose to 56,345 — 41 percent better than the 2011 season but still the lowest in the California League.

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