Knights’ move: York County couldn’t compete with Queen City’s lure

mbanks@comporium.netAugust 28, 2013 

— Note to readers: This is the final installment of a four-part series looking back at Knights Stadium during the final months of the Charlotte Knights’ existence in Fort Mill.

Call it fate, call it what you will, but sometimes when a relationship starts, things just aren’t meant to be in the long run.

That can be a summation of how the relationship between the Charlotte Knights and York County unfolded over the past decade.

The relationship wasn’t bad, according to both Knights’ executive vice president and chief operating officer Dan Rajkowski and former York County Manager Jim Baker, who now works in Virginia as City Manager for the City of Chesapeake.

However, it was a relationship where the Knights, the Triple-A farm club of the Chicago White Sox, knew where they wanted to be in the future and York County didn’t stop them from trying to get there.

“My relationship with Jim Baker and council members was a positive relationship,” Rajkowski said.

“We did have an extension and put some money into the ball park and enhanced it for the fans. Our relationship wasn’t negative. I think from our prospective, I kind of looked at it as what is best for this franchise. And what I think our organization and our ownership looked at it, what was the long term viability of the team in Fort Mill under the current circumstances and lease.”

Rajkowski said it came to down to making a decision in the team’s economic survival.

“What we did, was look at it from a financial perspective and can we survive the way things are and the answer is no,” he said.

“At that time, we had some conversations with elected officials about what the future was; that this franchise needed enhancements, some incentives to maintain its business and there wasn’t a lot of movement to do that, and we understand. Times are tough. You are looking back at a difficult climate back in 2006, 2007. That is when the economy started to turn for all of us. If you want to make your business a success, you have to make it profitable and we will be in the sports center of this region. Plain and simple. It’s not the preference of being in Fort Mill vs. Charlotte. It is being in the center city of sports entertainment.”

From York County’s standpoint, officials knew they were potentially fighting a losing battle in trying to keep the Knights in Fort Mill.

“We always knew there was a possibility of them moving to Charlotte,” Baker said. “We always encouraged them to make a long term commitment. They made a four year commitment at one time and when that [end] came up there were likely going to make decision. We understood the lure that they could make more money going to Charlotte and I guess we will find that out.”

Even Knights majority owner Don Beaver said the team was destined to leave York County, and the county government knew that.

“They always considered the fact that if we got everything working downtown and had a project that was economically feasible to us, we were destined to move,” Beaver said. “That didn’t give them much incentive to help much considering we might be leaving. I think they felt like they didn’t need to step up to the plate to do much for us. That seems to be the fact of the matter.”

Over the years, the Knights and York County occasionally worked out deals to keep the team around, but those deals never got in the way of them getting back to the Queen City. For example, York County worked with the Knights to share parking revenue to help finance improvements to Knights Stadium, including building a new outfield wall, installing a video board in centerfield, improvements to the field itself and expanding the picnic area.

“That was done under the contract that was designed to give them the best opportunity to make things more successful in York County,” Baker said. “We anticipated the four year lease would incentivize them to make some improvements to the ballpark that would both help the county and make it a more attractive place to watch baseball. That was something we did.

“All those factors we tried to factor into the lease for the best chance for baseball to survive there. From the Knights perspective they felt like they could get more attendance with a new ballpark in Charlotte.”

But one thing that was never on the table was a new ballpark locally, something the Knights felt like the team needed. Rajkowski said his initial goal once he was hired in 2005 was to help breathe new life into the ballpark in Fort Mill, but that eventually changed based on ownership’s decision.

“My first goal was to create a little more energy in this ballpark, but also look at the vision of the future of where this franchise can be,” he said.

“After 24 years now, the team started off fairly well early on in the late 80s and early 90s and then has seen some struggles and that is no secret. I think once you get to a point of where you look at this building (Knights Stadium) from a maintenance prospective, an operational prospective, this building will be 25 years old building. Most buildings get blown up after 25 years. We had to look at whether this was a circumstance or situation that was in the best interest of the future of professional baseball in this region. As we looked at it, there was discussion about being in the center city and the core of the population and as we investigated and went through the exercise, we found we were able to acquire, in my opinion, one of the greatest locations anywhere in the country. We have been able to work with the city government of Charlotte and county government of Charlotte and the private sector stepped up to get us to be where we are today.”

So with what could be considered York County’s loss, would be Charlotte’s gain – if the Knights are as successful as they plan to be in the Queen City. The City of Charlotte did help finance part of the new, $54 million BB&T Ballpark the Knights will be playing in next season.

“I have to say I am glad its own its way back to Charlotte,” said Patrick Cannon, Charlotte mayor pro tem and native of the Queen City.

“In as much as that it’s leaving Fort Mill, I am still happy it’s part of the region where anyone can still go and enjoy the games. The idea to want to come to Charlotte was something the Knights obviously wanted to do. There was an opportunity and the organization wanted to do something different. I can’t say we made it very easy because I was part of the negotiations of if it was going to be financed and how was it going to be financed. And one of the things that was going to be on the table was how to utilize property taxes that I though was going to be too extreme. We went round and round before I came up with an idea of utilizing a visitor’s tax to provide the financing to move the opportunity forward. So in the end it worked out to what I thought would be easy for the taxpayers in the city of Charlotte and eventually what the Knights thought they could live with.”

From York County’s perspective, Baker said he felt like the County Council did what it could to keep the Knights here.

“We did what we thought was responsible to do,” he said. “I guess you can always second guess yourself. The county went out of its way to try and offer what would be mutually satisfactory. At least one of the challenges we discussed at the time is anytime you have a franchise that has been talking about leaving for a number of years, it’s really tough to get great attendance when that is hanging out there over people’s heads. So one of the challenges, even given the fact there we were making improvements to the stadium and stuff, there was always the question, are they going to be here four years from now. That isn’t a criticism of the Knights because they made it known to everybody they didn’t want to give up that possibility of going to Charlotte. So even when we did that four-year deal, it helped a little bit, but that was still a tough sale for the York County people to think it was their team if they (the Knights) felt like they would still be better off in Charlotte.”

“Whatever the reason,” Baker said, “they couldn’t get the attendance they were hoping to have in York County and whether it was because they were constantly talking about leaving or whether it was the fact that because the ballpark wasn’t as new as it was when it was first built, that will always be difficult for people to know.”

One thing that never helped keep the Knights in Fort Mill was the lack of development around the stadium. Plans had sprung up over the years to create a downtown-type destination with a mix of retail and residential development with the stadium as a centerpiece. One plan envisioned a hotel, office space, high-end shopping, a movie theater and condos overlooking the ballpark. None ever came to fruition.

Now, some of the property became the Fort Mill School District Office; other parcels are being sold off piecemeal and fashion retailer Cato plans to create a distribution center where the stadium is now.

“Development didn’t happen around this facility like many had anticipated,” Rajkowski said.

“If you look at successful franchise around the country they are spurred by development around them. It’s no one’s fault. I think it’s a matter this (area) didn’t development and therefore it was clearly just a destination that you would come for baseball and it’s very rural and hard to get people during the week. We did well on the weekends and continue to do well on the weekends, but we got 72 home games and 50 of them are not on the weekends. You can’t survive as a business.”

Baker can’t help but agree regarding the lack of development, but said the Great Recession didn’t help.

“The timing was bad for development,” he said. “All things being considered the proximity to Charlotte, that location in Fort Mill should be a prime location and everybody expected it to go. But when you buy at the height of the market and the bottom falls out of the market it makes it difficult for people to get their initial investment out of it. It’s not unusual these types developments, once you hit a recession have to go through several different hands, before they finally get back to market value. I would be surprised if that area doesn’t develop [eventually]. It’s just the timing was when all those great ideas happened right before the bottom fell out of the housing market and commercial market, too. I just think it is bad timing. No one ever identified to me why that property won’t be very valuable in the future.”

As the Knights get ready for their last homestand this week – two three-game series, one against Norfolk Aug. 28-30 and one against Gwinnett Aug. 31-Sept. 2, the curtain will close on nearly a quarter of a century of existence in Fort Mill.

“We have had a good run there in Fort Mill; there is no doubt about that,” Beaver said. “I think a lot of the staff is sad to leave. We had some advantages being outside of the hustle and bustle of the big city. But that seems to be where all the success is in downtown ballparks. That is where things seem to be going these days, even in the major leagues. There is more people and action in the downtown area, than it is up there (Fort Mill). I think everybody is sad to leave, but it’s time to move on.”

Next year, when the Knights open BB&T Ballpark the capacity will be the same – 10,000 – but the setting will be much different than the rural woodlands of Fort Mill.

“That is where everything seems to be more successful in downtown ballparks with the population base,” Beaver said. “That seems to be the way things are going in other towns in Triple-A and people have seem to be successful in downtown ballparks. For the sake of our business that is where we needed to be. All the support leads us to doing better there financially. It seems we are able to attract more sponsorships in the city of Charlotte than we can that far out (in Fort Mill).”

With the new ballpark comes new hope for the team and organization, not just for next year, but for future years.

“The expectations are going to be something people haven’t seen in a long time,” Rajkowski said.

“We are going to get back to the expectation of being the most successful franchise in minor league baseball. That is what we have to do. That is what we have to shoot our goals to. That is what I want our staff to do and provide the type of entertainment where every night, or almost every night, you are getting full houses. Our staff has worked hard to celebrate the history of baseball here (in Fort Mill). Some of the things that have gone on over the last 25 years. There are a lot of good memories. Memories are built at baseball parks.”

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