by Mary Rupert
The T-Bones baseball team has a new owner, Max Fun Entertainment, and a new agreement that will allow the team to stay in Kansas City, Kansas, next season.
After approval by the Unified Government Commission on Thursday night, the T-Bones now just need the approval of their league, the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball to continue, according to Matt Perry of Topeka, the new president of the T-Bones. Mark Brandmeyer, from the Greater Kansas City area, is the majority owner of Max Fun Entertainment.
Perry said he expected to receive the league’s approval soon.
At the Thursday night UG Commission meeting, Perry pledged that he would make stadium improvements as well as improve marketing and add some new attractions, such as sand volleyball or pickleball or even an ice skating rink, for entertainment during the off-season.
While Max Fun plans to improve branding for the baseball team, it will likely keep the name T-Bones. Also, it will likely keep the staff who are now there, including General Manager Chris Browne and Manager Joe Calfapietra, according to Perry.
Besides Brandmeyer, Perry and Chad Boeger are principals with Max Fun. Boeger, a Max Fun partner, is president of Union Broadcasting, which is the parent company of WHB-AM radio. Perry, of Topeka, is president of National Sports Services, active in sports team operations and event management. Perry will be the T-Bones president.
Perry told the commission they will go for a “giant tailgate ballpark atmosphere,” filled with groups from different walks of life. He talked about expanding the T-Bones market out to Leavenworth and Lawrence, and surrounding towns.
He said they would like to make this a year-round entertainment experience.
The UG, which owns T-Bones Stadium, evicted the T-Bones’ former owners and padlocked the stadium on Monday. The team owed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Board of Public Utilities and UG. The new owners who stepped in on Thursday night had been talking with the T-Bones and UG for some time about buying the team, and have been helping with some of the T-Bones’ expenses this past year.
“I feel bad that things ended up like they did,” Perry said. “It wasn’t our doing, but we’re taking on a lot of the debt that was created, going forward. One of our goals is to make sure the investment we make and the investment the United Government makes going forward is a sound investment and pays off.”
He said they are now focused on the future.
Perry did not disclose the purchase price of the T-Bones, and added the former owners are not receiving a substantial amount of money from the sale. The new owners are assuming a lot of the debt, and the former owners have been paying for the operation of the team, he said. It was not a good financial income for them, he added.
How did the former owners get so far behind on their debt?
“It was driven by a lot of things, but I think they had a lot of overhead they were trying to chew off and handle financially, changes in the market,” Perry said. “You had the MLS team come to the market, so that created a lot of interest and they do a great job. Every time that happens, there’s a little bit of impact on the overall entertainment dollars that are available in the market.”
That really requires the business to change and modify the product, and if they don’t, it’s harder to generate revenue to cover the expenses, he said.
Renovations that Max Fun is considering include replacing the seats, repairs to the suites, painting, renovating the playing field, work on the signs, as well as work to the restrooms, food service areas, and clubhouse repairs.
They also are planning a new look for the brand and stadium, he said.
The new owners also are looking at adding new attractions such as shuffleboard, bocce, meeting spaces, concerts, adding themes for the holidays, and interactive premium experiences with digital resources at a sports bar.
Management agreement approved on 9-1 vote
The UG Commission voted 9-1 to approve the agreement during the commission meeting Oct. 17. Commissioner Ann Brandau Murguia voted no after reading a statement.
She said she would like to see the team return to being a huge attraction. She also said she thinks it is an incredible deal.
“However, I am disappointed that once our government realized that the current owners were in trouble financially, and trying to sell the team, I believe our government should have put out an RFP (request for proposals) to see if any other team or developer would offer a better deal,” Commissioner Murguia said. “That was not done, despite my request, so I am left to vote on only two options tonight: one, no, and letting a stadium go dark in the middle of one of the most vibrant areas of Wyandotte County, or two, the deal before us, not really great options. I think there could have been more options had our government been more proactive in marketing the stadium through the normal RFP process once we were alerted to the current owner’s financial situation. So tonight, I am not voting no on your proposal, I am voting no on the process. I just believe, to broaden our tax base, to provide our entire county with tax relief, and to provide amenities all over our county, we need to dream bigger as a government, and we need to be more proactive when these kinds of situations take place.”
Commissioner Jim Walters, who designed the nearby soccer stadium, said he was not disagreeing with Commissioner Murguia but he sees it from a different perspective.
“We are where we are, and I am thrilled that your organization has stepped forward to invest in our community. We do owe a bit to our former owner, we had issues with him, obviously, but he did bring professional baseball to Wyandotte County, we wouldn’t have it without him, and they established a bit of a tradition,” Commissioner Walters said, before making the motion to approve the agreement. “It seems to me that you are interested in and prepared and qualified to take that tradition to a higher level.”
He said he was grateful they stepped forward, and is happy with everything he has seen so far.
“It has turned out well for us,” Commissioner Walters said.
Commissioner Gayle Townsend asked questions about specific details of the agreement. She was told by a UG attorney that the UG will have the opportunity under this agreement to approve a third-party operation that may be going into the T-Bones Stadium area, such as a sports bar.
Commissioner Melissa Bynum asked what other kinds of events could be occurring there that could produce 5 percent revenue for the UG. According to Perry, the events might include a concert, a tournament, a festival, or any event that Max Fun is sponsoring. However, according to a UG attorney, any baseball events do not fall under the 5 percent revenue rule. But if tickets are sold, according to Administrator Doug Bach, there is a ticket tax that would apply.
Commissioner Bynum also asked if baseball games would continue to be affordable for families as they have been in the past. Perry said there may be some premium tickets or suite level tickets, and at the same time there will be general admission prices that are lower prices allowing families to attend at an affordable rate.
She also asked about sales tax. Bach said sales tax is produced by the sales at the stadium. There also is a provision requiring all visiting teams to stay at a Kansas City, Kansas, hotel, where an additional room tax will go to the UG. Indirectly, visitors may go to a restaurant, people who work there receive salaries and pay taxes, as well as other ways the community receives benefits from the team.
Residents speak out
A public hearing preceded the vote, with the commission hearing comments from residents.
Sheila Jackson of Kansas City, Kansas, said she didn’t understand why the UG was giving a million dollars on capital improvements for the stadium, instead of applying some of it to the past due utility bill. She also wanted local firms to get contracting jobs for the renovations.
Mary Gerlt said the taxpayers would still be more in debt than when they started with the $1 million in capital improvements.
Tscher “CeCe” Manck said, “We never get a break with our bills.” She also was objecting to the million dollar expenditure for capital improvements.
On Monday, a UG spokesman said the UG will go after any remaining debts from the utility bills to the BPU and the payments owed to the UG.
UG Administrator Bach explained at the Thursday meeting that since July 2017, all the T-Bones utilities to the BPU have been paid in full. Before that, the team was in debt to the BPU for hundreds of millions, and those are the bills the UG will be trying to collect, he added.
Bach said the $1 million discussed as the UG’s contribution is actually from a STAR bond account that can only be used for stadium renovations. The STAR bonds were issued earlier. All the funds in this STAR bond account come from Village West sales taxes, and 70 percent or more of the spending at Village West comes from outside Wyandotte County, he said. Two-thirds of the money in the STAR bond account comes from state sales taxes, he said. The $1 million in this account cannot be used for the utility bill or salaries, it has to be for capital improvements at the stadium, he said. The UG was holding the funds until the owners were in a position to make investments in the stadium renovations.
The former owners of the T-Bones originally built the stadium, and the UG bought it in 2013, using STAR bonds, Bach said. It was $5.5 million for the purchase, and a couple million for stadium improvements, he said. It was not an additional issuance, it was from savings from project work that was already out there, he added. They started to spend part of the money on the stadium, but before spending the additional million, the UG stopped because the manager at the time was not fulfilling the obligations with the UG, Bach said. The money was held in the reserve account to only be expended for capital improvements there, he added.
The new owners have agreed to spend $500,000 on stadium renovations, according to the proposed agreement, but this figure now has been changed to a conditional one, along with the UG contribution of $1 million from the STAR bond account.
Bach said the project moved along quickly so that the team can maintain its place to play baseball in the league in 2020.
The agreement is for five years, with three five-year renewal options. Max Fun will buy the T-Bones and play at Village West Stadium, while also managing all stadium operations, according to UG officials. The UG would still own the stadium. The UG and Max Fun will split utility costs in the first year, and after that, Max Fun will be responsible for all utility costs. Max Fun will pay property taxes on the adjacent parking light and will pay all the common area maintenance charges to the Legends, according to the agreement.
Max Fun would be required to get a letter of credit for $100,000 to cover utility charges after one year, according to the agreement. Also, Max Fun would pay 50 cents per ticket for park facilities improvements in Wyandotte County, which would be capped at $20,000 for the first two years of the agreement.
Perry said Max Fun is investing about $1.7 million in the project.
As Max Fun and the UG were still talking, even on Thursday, Bach said he recommended an amendment that would make the $1 million UG investment and the $500,000 Max Fun investment into a conditional item, and work through the details of the items over the next 12 months. He said they wanted to have some latitude, and this would be presented again to the commission.
Alan Carr, the director of the Convention and Visitors Bureau of Kansas City, Kansas, was in favor of the agreement. The baseball team draws a huge number of visitors to Wyandotte County, resulting in visitors paying a lot of sales taxes here, he said. At the CVB, the T-Bones Stadium is an important tool, allowing them to hold other events that draw more visitors to the community. From an event in August at T-Bones Stadium that 20 teams attended, 700 room nights were used with an economic impact of $700,000 to the area, he said.
“We need the stadium to be open and we need it to be vibrant,” Carr said.
Doug Reising, Overland Park, told the UG Commission that he also had ideas for the T-Bones Stadium, pointing out there was no request for proposals, and asked if Max Fun was amenable to having people come in and sublease. He said he also had a vision for an entertainment complex year-round. Perry talked with him after the meeting.