By SHANNON WATKINS
At Tuesday night’s Pulaski Town Council meeting, the council discussed the need to repair or upgrade facilities at Calfee Park to meet professional baseball standards.
The visitors’ clubhouse in particular was mentioned by the Seattle Mariners Director Chris Gwynn as “inadequate and an embarrassment to us and the Appalachian league clubs that visit Pulaski” in a letter to the Pulaski Mariners in late September.
The letter was alluded to earlier in the meeting when, recognized by Mayor Jeff Worrell, citizen Clark Payne addressed the council as a member of the public. Payne concluded his speech by suggesting the town possibly look into measures such as starting competitive bids to host the visitors’ team, competitive staffing or looking into concession rentals. “I don’t know what the parts are to a good baseball management contract, and I don’t mean to speak to them as if I have any knowledge. I’m just looking at it from an income and outgo position,” Payne said.
Before this, however, Payne called the letter “offensive” and “insulting” and seemed to hint that perhaps Pulaski should abandon baseball entirely.
“I’ve only lived here for eight years and during that time I believe we’ve spent well over $150,000 in additions and upgrades to Calfee Park and I believe that the yearly income derived from Calfee Park is somewhere in the neighborhood of $16,000-$20,000, depending on the year,” said Payne. “And that tells me that maybe we’ve just about broken even on our additional expenses. In the eight years, every time the ballpark recommendations are made, it always sounds as if there’s a dire emergency, and that the world will quit turning if we don’t go ahead … the Appalachian league will throw us out like old trash and move on down the road.”
He referenced the letter and went on to say that while he enjoyed attending ballgames in town, he wondered why the Mariners wanted to play here if it was such an embarrassment, or why the Seattle Mariners or Pulaski Baseball weren’t paying for the repairs.
“After all, I have no idea what the true economic value of having a ball team here is, over and above the fact that those of us who live here really like to go to the game,” he said with a laugh. “I’d hate to see them go away, but I have not yet seen an accurate prediction of how much money it costs each year to run that ballpark, how much overtime, how many hours, how much equipment, how much insurance, and how much do we obtain from that in terms of income compared to the income generated. I don’t think to my knowledge, there has ever been a complete, accurate and professional analysis done to determine the economic benefit of that ballpark,” said Payne, who also mentioned the problem of future liabilities with the structures as well.
“I guess everyone knows, we are contractually obligated to maintain Calfee Park to (professional) baseball standards in order to have minor league baseball here, and the visitor’s clubhouse falls short of those standards,” said Worrell later, when the matter surfaced on the council’s agenda. “I think this time it’s going to be addressed one way or another, so I just wanted to start a discussion here this evening.” He advised that council take a trip to Calfee to see the problems firsthand.
“I had a chance to speak to Pat O’Connor, who is the president of minor league baseball, and basically what he told was that we’ve had waivers for a long time to meet the requirements of the visitors’ clubhouse and the era of those waivers is going to end,” said Vice Mayor Joseph Goodman. “So we have a decision to make and that is, we either fix it, or we no longer meet minor league baseball standards. We no longer have minor league baseball.” Goodman said that likely the league would extend a little extra time if it was obvious that concrete planning and funding were in the works.
Councilman Jamie Radcliffe questioned Parks and Facilities Director Dave Hart, trying to clarify what groups were connected with baseball in Pulaski. Hart explained that the town owns Calfee Park itself, the Pulaski Mariners are owned by the Seattle Mariners, and Pulaski Baseball, Inc. is a separate entity from either.
“The town has an agreement, a contract with Pulaski Baseball, Inc. to operate an affiliate,” said Hart. “Pulaski Baseball, Inc., then also has an agreement with the Seattle Mariners to bring their minor league team here, in the Appalachian League, to Calfee Park to play their games. In the town’s contract with Pulaski Baseball, it spells out everything that each side is responsible for.”
“Do any of these groups like the Mariners, if we decide to go with this field house or whatever we’re going to do with it, do they contribute any money back to that, or is that our baby?” asked Radcliffe.
“That’s probably our responsibility,” said Hart.
Worrell and Town Manager John Hawley noted that when the town replaced Calfee’s scoreboard a few years ago, Pulaski Baseball, but not the Mariners, contributed about $6,000 to it, noting the Pulaski County Middle School Baseball Association helped. It was also pointed out that the high school team likes to play at Calfee on occasion.
“The town of Pulaski is obligated to meet Appalachian League standards, which are minor league standards,” said Hawley.
Worrell noted that a few years ago, council looked at other teams’ setups to see how such responsibilities were divided up to see if there was a coherent model and found that almost each one was different.
Hawley advised the first thing to do was look at cost estimates, and that the professional baseball association would advise what exact standards need to be met. He said that hopefully James Hardie could donate some supplies and mentioned the possibility of making renovation a community project. He also advised meeting with the league, and said that council’s information packets included 2012-2013 financial reports from Pulaski Baseball.
“This is an economic development project. There’s about 12 full-time equivalent jobs up there,” said Hawley. “When you take everybody that works there from the beginning of June to the end of August, it’s a pretty good number of jobs … it is a regional impact here. This is something I hope we can bring up when our board members meet with the county board members. This is a community project. You get the town and county behind it, you get Pulaski Baseball behind it, you get the community behind it, you know, we can make this happen, too.”
“I think everybody here would agree that Calfee Park is one of the jewels in the crown of Pulaski,” said Councilman Greg East, who went on to say he thought private fundraising would help.
“I think it’s an important aspect of the community to try to move forward with this and try to keep baseball here,” said Hawley, who said he would look into trying to raise funds with Pulaski Baseball and others if possible.
“We need to see if we can facilitate the creation of an organization, say along the lines of the ‘Friends of Calfee Park’ or something, that would actually be the one that’s trying to raise the funds, like was done with the Pulaski Theater,” suggested Goodman. “That organization could reach out and see if there are funds available that might not be available to the town, and then they can reach out to folks in the community that might be able to donate. I’ve also suggested that we contact every single person in pro baseball that’s played at Calfee Park. There are a lot of different avenues that we have for fundraising. The key is, we have to make sure it gets executed and follow through.”
Plans were made for council to inform the public that they will visit Calfee Park on Thursday afternoon to see what improvements are needed.