Can Burlington Save Centennial Field and the Lake Monsters?
Brian Pine has a new title at Burlington’s Community and Economic Development Office: assistant director of housing and baseball.
Pine is quietly coordinating a City Hall-sanctioned fundraising effort to keep Minor League Baseball (MiLB) in the Queen City. On Monday, July 12, in a rare display of tripartisan solidarity, the Burlington City Council got behind the idea.
City Council President Kurt Wright, a Ward 4 Republican, directed Pine to form a task force that will report back to the council in October with ideas of how to either fix up Centennial Field or build a new park in the county.
Since MiLB returned to Burlington 16 years ago, more than 1.7 million people have attended games at Centennial. But this year could be the Vermont Lake Monsters’ last at the historic park. Major League Baseball (MLB) has been critical of Centennial’s substandard playing field, clubhouses and lighting.
Last year, the University of Vermont severed some of its ties to the historic ballpark by abolishing the school’s century-old baseball team.
The Lake Monsters have made some minor repairs to the infield and the pitcher’s mound this year, but nothing more. MLB won’t extend the team more than one year because of the stadium’s shortcomings.
“If we had a new stadium or made significant improvements to Centennial, we could probably talk about a five-, 10- or even 20-year agreement,” says local businessman Ray Pecor, who owns the Lake Monsters.
New ballparks cost $3000 to $7000 per seat to build, with small markets such as Burlington generally seating up to 6000 people. Renovations range from $4000 to $6000 per seat, according to Pine. He says that Mayor Bob Kiss, CEDO director Larry Kupferman and chief administrative officer Jonathan Leopold, among others, have been meeting with area business and political leaders to investigate possible funding streams.
“We were really glad to see the city council get on board,” said Pine.
Wright’s resolution was meant to be proactive. “I didn’t want the Lake Monsters to be suddenly gone while we sat by and did nothing to try to keep them,” he said.
His resolution directs CEDO to set up formal meetings with the team’s owners, UVM, a representative from Gov. Jim Douglas’ administration and the congressional delegation. Paul Bruhn, from Preservation Trust of Vermont, is also researching the possibility of getting private and federal grants.
“If nothing’s done to that park, I think we all know that the Lake Monsters are not going to be here much longer,” said Wright.
Options include federal and state historic preservation or community economic development block grants; selling stock and making it a publicly owned team; and issuing bonds that could be repaid by residents, perhaps through a short-term, special tax on rooms, meals and entertainment in the county.
Other possible financing mechanisms are: scratch-off, baseball-themed lottery tickets; legislative action to create a special assessment district spanning more than one community or county; a special stadium tax on restaurants, hotels and rental cars; lease financing with team and concession rents; gross receipts; ticket surcharges; federal infrastructure improvement; parking fees; and naming rights.
Tom Torti, executive director of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce, said the business community could potentially support a regional tax or funding agreement to either build a new stadium or fix up Centennial.
“I think they could do it again if they knew it was only a short-term tax increase to make the improvements,” said Torti.
The improvements, however, would have to be long term.
“If we do something, we need to do something that will not just meet the MLB standards,” said Pine, “but something that will keep a baseball team here 15 to 20 years.”