The Times West Virginian

June 28, 2012

Interchange key for baseball project

Uncertainty still surrounds WVU stadium plan

By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN — The only thing that is certain about West Virginia University’s proposal to build at baseball stadium at the University Towne Centre site is that nothing is certain.

That was about the only conclusion you could draw out of Wednesday morning’s public hearing held by the Monongalia County Commissioners at the new County Sheriff’s Building here.

In truth, according to those who spoke, the entire project seems to hinge on the construction of a new interchange off I-79 that would allow traffic to flow freely into the area, bringing in fans for the baseball facility and customers and workers for whatever development comes out of the project.

“Without the interchange there will not be enough revenue generated to do the project,” Jason Donahue, the project’s architect, said. “The interchange is an absolutely critical component to the overall success of the project.”

The problem that creates is that in this three-pronged project, the interchange will probably take the longest to complete.

As laid out, the project will use tax incremental funding (TIF) for its financing, taxes raised through sales tax and through property taxes.

To begin the project, which initially is estimated to cost $45 million and for which a $60 million bond will be requested to leave some leeway, a $4 million infrastructure project will be undertaken, building roads and sewage and the necessary items.

Next on the agenda is the ball park, which is scheduled to cost $16.25 million.

Third is the interchange, and that carries a $25 million price tag, a cost that there cannot be financing for unless the other projects succeed and, in a strange Catch-22, they cannot succeed without the interchange.

After that, a business park is on the agenda to be built.

While the ball park has been the public face of this project, it really is not the driving component.  

“The genesis of this in the first place of the project was not the baseball park and the other infrastructure we talked about,” spokesman Brian Helmick of Spillman, Thomas and Battle said. “It is to really see the build out and the potential of what this will do for the whole region, specifically toward Mylan Park.

“How do you fund the interchange to make that happen? Quite frankly, the only way to fund the interchange that we have found, and we have pursued every avenue that we were aware of, was to find an innovative financing mechanism. In this case that’s the combination of the sales tax and property tax districts to fund the interchange.

“But to fund the interchange the other growth in the district must occur, which is the facilitation of the public infrastructure and the building of the baseball facility. That will provide the funds to allow the DOH to come in and construct the interchange.

“All three of those components do not stand alone. They stand very much in concert, and it is a process of working through the first two together that creates the funding opportunity to allow the funding of the interchange at the end of the day.”

Marvin Murphy, chief engineer of the Division of Highways, said they believe in this project.

“We have been involved in a review of it, and we find the project is compatible with our long-range plan. We think this is a good project and are kind of anxious to see it get started,” he said.

Murphy was asked if it was possible that the federal government might veto the project and if they did would that not kill it.

“That is a possibility,” he admitted. “I think they will approve it, but I can’t guarantee it.”

There are other unknowns in the project, including who will own the land and the stadium and whatever else is developed on the site.

“Everything will be public ownership,” Helmick said, speaking of the ball park. “It would be a community facility. There are options in public ownership — the university, the county, someone like BOPARC could be the owner.”

The TIF funding was debated strongly during the meeting as some felt not all members of Monongalia County would benefit from the project.

There were some revelations that came out when West Virginia University athletic director Oliver Luck spoke of his vision of the ball park as a “true community venue.”

“In addition, to sharing the facility with Fairmont State University, we have been contacted by three minor league baseball organizations, the most prominent being the New York-Penn League, which is an affiliated league, which means every team has a major league partner,” he said.

There are two unaffiliated leagues, independent leagues, the Frontier League and the Prospect League, that have an interest in putting a franchise in here.

“We’ve also had interest from two major concert promoters in the country, Live Nation and AEG, and they like venues like this that are suitable for summer concerts,” he said. “We’ve even had contact from the Over 30 League, which is the old guys who like to play a little baseball.”

Luck also said the field will be made of artificial surface to handle all that usage plus will be all-weather so it can be used for events year-round.

Email Bob Hertzel at Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.