BELOIT - Time has not run out on the Beloit Snappers' bid to build a new stadium.
It's getting close, however. Very close.
Midwest League president Dick Nussbaum said that while progress has been made in landing an agreement to build a downtown ballpark, things aren't where they need to be at this point.
"I think there's been a lot of good work by the people in Beloit, both by the Snappers people and by the business community, to put together a viable new stadium plan," Nussbaum said. "And I don't want to minimize the progress that was made there. But this issue has been going on for five-plus years. A lot of really good work has been done in the last year, but we're not there yet.
"Because of the fact that this has been a long-standing issue with the facility in Beloit, which is not acceptable, we at the league office are under a lot of pressure to solve that problem. As a result, there's more of an urgency at this point than I can describe adequately. It's my understanding that the board and the business community are still working on a plan that they can sign off on and present to the league. Nothing is dead yet. But they are working in a context in which all options are on the table. The league can't ignore if another option presents itself."
Nussbaum was adamant that the Midwest League would love to see Beloit keep the franchise. When the Snappers opened play in the Midwest League in 1982 at Pohlman Field, they were surrounded by similar communities. Teams in Waterloo, Iowa, Danville, Ill., Wausau and Wisconsin Rapids were in existence. Over the years, the league has followed the trend of Minor League Baseball as a whole, moving to larger communities.
While Beloit was always a smaller market, it is now dwarfed by communities like Lansing, Dayton and suburban Chicago. The lone vestiges of a bygone era, hanging on in the lower rungs of the league's attendance figures along with the Snappers are franchises in Clinton, Iowa and Burlington, Iowa.
Beloit drew an average of 1,025 fans last season. Dayton, the league's leader, drew 7.868 per game. While Clinton slugged along with just over 1,800 fans per game, the next lowest was Cedar Rapids, which averaged over 2,300 per contest.
"This is my fifth year as president of the league," Nussbaum said. "And I have put more effort into keeping this team in Beloit than I have on any other issue that I've addressed. My hope is that the team will stay in Beloit. But I need some help. And that's got to come from the city, the Snappers board, and the business community. I'm not saying there haven't been good-faith efforts to get it done, but it hasn't materialized yet.
"If there's any message that I want to give the community, it's to say that it's not too late, but time is of the essence."
The Snappers are part of the Professional Baseball Agreement, signed in 2011, through 2020 that essentially ensures the team will remain in Beloit through the end of next season. However, should there not be an agreement on a new facility soon, plans will be made to look to move the team.
"I'm not going to comment on other specific options," Nussbaum said. "That would be unfair to do. My preferred option is to keep the team in Beloit. But I must say that Minor League Baseball is a very attractive product now. My sense is that there won't be any lack of interest in some other place wanting to have a Midwest League franchise. We have an obligation to our Major League partners to provide facilities that are appropriate to the investment that they are making in their players. I will tell you that most of the cities in our league have premier facilities, and Beloit does not. That's just the reality."
Nussbaum said there is no hard deadline for the club to reach an agreement on a new facility.
"There's not a drop-dead date," Nussbaum said. "There were timetables that were provided to us by the club, and those timetables were not met despite their best efforts. My last conversation with the people in Beloit was that they were still trying to work something out. The door is not closed for that, but it's really important it gets done soon. Two things would help: Last year there was an increase in attendance in Beloit, which was a good sign. If the fans would continue that trend, that would be a big help. And second, if people in the business community would take a hard look at it, and be willing to work with others to provide the resources necessary to make a new stadium happen."
Snappers president Dennis Conerton said the club is still hoping an agreement can be reached.
"We are still optimistic and encouraged by the progress that's been made, especially in the last year," Conerton said. "I can't deny that this thing has gone on and on, but it's also a complicated matter with a lot of moving parts. You can expect some twists and turns, and that's what we've had. But the Midwest League has been very understanding, and they want us to succeed. We've had some tremendous support from people in the community that a year ago weren't involved at all."
Conerton said a majority of the deal had already been hammered out.
"Financial commitments have been laid out on the table," Conerton said. "A substantial amount of work and investment has been put into the design, the funding and the lease agreements. These are detailed things, and we're to the point now where we are just pushing for the last five or 10 percent of the funding to push this thing through."
Conerton said the City of Beloit has made it clear they won't be able to support the team in any way financially.
"They don't have the resources to help us to the extent that we would have liked them to," Conerton said. "That's not a road block for us, it's just another hurdle we have to get over."
They have a limited financial capacity and they've made that clear in several conversations."
Conerton said that while the Snappers' board of directors is focusing 90 percent of its attention on building a stadium in Beloit, they also must invest some attention in the potential relocation of the team as well.
The Snappers, armed with the smallest front office staff in recent memory, are set to begin the 2019 season on Thursday, April 4.