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By ANTHONY WARREN,

City seeks new managers for Smith-Wills baseball stadium

smith-wills baseball stadium  could soon have new managers, but experts say that much more than new management is needed to again make the structure viable for entertainment and sporting events.

The city of Jackson recently issued a request for proposals (RFP) for a new firm to oversee the stadium. Proposals are due Tuesday, January 8.

“The city has been looking through all of its agencies to find sources or revenue. The stadium, although it had a contract in place, has not been a source of revenue,” Chief Administrative Officer Robert Blaine said.

The administration ended Jackson’s longstanding management agreement with Northside businessman Con Maloney recently, and is now making some minor upgrades to “hand over a fully-functioning facility to a management group,” Blaine said.

“We’re working on things like bathrooms and concession stands and painting – a general sprucing up of the facilities,” he said. “We wanted to make sure it is presentable, especially for the baseball teams, as training begins in late winter and early spring.”

The stadium is home to the Belhaven University Blazers. The team’s season begins Friday, February 8, according to the school’s website.

Under terms of the proposal, a selected firm would pay to lease the 5,200-seat stadium for a total of five years. Also, the new managers must be willing to pay Jackson 30 percent of all revenue on ticketed sales events and $20,000 per quarter.

The city hasn’t received revenues off the stadium in years and the rental fees included in the RFP would represent a “minimal” investment for a successful management firm, according to Blaine.

Jackson spends about $100,000 a year to maintain the facility, and makes no profit. For fiscal year 2018, the city budgeted $107,157 for stadium upkeep, up from the $93,205 set aside as part of the 2017 budget, but down from the $121,000 it spent in 2016.

 

Selection criteria includes the applicant’s experience in managing stadiums, its ability to market, book and promote events, as well as its ability to develop a “wide variety of civic, community, athletic, educational, cultural and commercial events and activities at the stadium,” according to the RFP.

“The stadium is still home to Belhaven. That relationship will continue. There are little league games and some traveling teams that come through,” Blaine said. “We want to expand our offerings to include tournaments that will bring more people to the stadium and more events to the city.”

However, making the stadium more viable likely will require significant upgrades, according to industry experts.

“We’re dealing with a facility that is structurally sound, but as far as modern amenities that other stadiums, even high school and D1 colleges have (amenities) that are far superior,” said Tim Bennett, owner of Overtime Sports in Biloxi.

Bennett, who formerly promoted events at the stadium along with local concert promoter Arden Barnett, recently conducted an assessment of the facility at the request of Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba.

He said the bathroom facilities, concession areas, fan comfort areas and press facilities all need major upgrades.

“To host any tournaments of significance there, it definitely needs upgraded press box facilities. Colleges come in, they bring their radio team, their sports information directors – they need space to work, to hook up to the Internet and to report back to their hometowns,” Bennett explained.

Bennett currently manages MGM Park in Biloxi, which hosts the annual Conference USA baseball tournament. The event is broadcast on the national cable channel EPSN and ESPN3, its online streaming service.

“During the tournament, we can have anywhere from 20 to 30 people at any given time. Once they bring in a national (television) crew, it can swell up to 40,” he said.

Bennett wouldn’t say how much it would cost to renovate the stadium but is pleased that the administration is making an effort to again make it a sought-after venue.

 

The stadium was constructed in 1975, four years before ESPN was founded. It was previously home to the Jackson Mets, a farm team for the Major League New York Mets, and later the Jackson Generals and Jackson Senators. The stadium also was home to the Mayor’s Cup, an annual matchup between the Ole Miss Rebels and Mississippi State Bulldogs baseball teams.  That game, now dubbed the “Governor’s Cup,” is played at Trustmark Park in Pearl.

Trustmark Park, which opened in 2005, seats some 8,500 patrons and is third in its league in total seating capacity, according to the Minor League Baseball website.

Barnett said that even with significant improvements, Smith-Wills likely would be passed over by concert promoters, in lieu of the new Brandon Amphitheater.

The 8,000-seat facility had its grand opening in the spring, according to WLBT.

“To do a show (at Smith-Wills), the costs are astronomical,” he said. “You have to bring a stage. There are only certain places it can be, and you have to put decking down to roll the trucks over. It’s almost cost-prohibitive.”

Barnett said setup costs at the stadium could run more than $50,000, not including advertising and band fees.

“That’s money that would normally go to the band. Financially, it does not make sense for an agent, a manager or a band,” he said.

 

Smith-Wills presents other challenges for concert promoters as well, including its proximity to nearby neighborhoods and the no-smoking requirement, Barnett explained.

“If you do a show on Tuesday night, Eastover is going to hear it,” he said. “The phones are going to ring. From just a noise standpoint, it could be challenging.”

The stadium is located on Lakeland Drive, in the heart of the LeFleur Museum District. It is in close proximity to three residential areas: Eastover, LOHO and Petit Bois.

Smoking is banned at the stadium because it has Astroturf, not grass. About a decade ago, Barnett attempted to bring the rock band Widespread Panic to Smith-Wills, but the plans fell through because of the smoking ban.

The most recent concerts held at the stadium were in August and were part of the city of Jackson’s concert series. Blaine said the event was sold out.

Barnett believes the best option would be making the stadium more viable for sporting events, such as college baseball matchups, rather than musical acts.

For his part, Bennett said even with the needed improvements, the city’s decision to seek new management is a step in the right direction.

“The best thing about Smith-Wills is the administration. There’s a group there that (knows) it has potential, but so does every NFL team that starts the season. It’s what you do with that potential that wins the Super Bowl.”

 

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