published Sunday, April 8th, 2012

A deal to keep the Lookouts

When Lookouts owner Frank Burke wanted to escape recurring flooding and maintenance problems at the aging Engel Stadium and move the Lookouts to a new ballpark downtown, he did something sports team owners nowadays rarely do: He financed his new stadium himself. That was in sharp contrast to the demands that team owners routinely make for host cities to pay for such investments.

In return for his benevolence, the city agreed to have River City Company -- the city's development organization -- lease the land the stadium inhabits to Burke for a $1 a year.

The deal has worked well for both sides. But with Burke trying to sell the Lookouts to settle the estate of his late father, a co-owner, the city faces the need for a contingency plan to buy the stadium from Burke, if that's what it takes to lure another Lookout owner to keep the baseball team in town.

Mayor Littlefield's plan for the city to buy and lease back the stadium to a future owner is a good idea, but he needs authority from the state to make that happen. Toward that end, the mayor is working with state Rep. Vince Dean and state Sen. Bo Watson to amend the state law that authorizes cities to finance construction of public stadiums through sales tax abatements on stadium-related revenue. Presently the law applies only to cities that use designated sales tax revenue to build public sports facilities; the amendment would allow cities the same privilege for buying sports facilities that they would then lease to a team.

The city's proposal merits the Legislature's approval . The city shouldn't have to lose the Lookouts, nor should Berke be saddled with a huge loss on a good-faith investment in his stadium to bring baseball to the mix downtown. The city's contingency plan would be a win-win, rather than a double-header loss. The Legislature should see it that way.

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