Fisher Cats to stay in city, provided stadium gets $1m in improvements

The NH Fisher Cats hosted the Binghamton Mets at Northeast Delta Dental Stadium in Manchester on Aug. 21. Fisher Cats owner Art Solomon said he wants the city to pay for about $1 million in improvements, including replacing the playing field and the fire suppression system.

MANCHESTER — The owner of the New Hampshire Fisher Cats is willing to keep his baseball team playing at its riverfront stadium seven additional years — until 2035.

That is, if he can reach an agreement on ballpark improvements with city leaders.

Owner Art Solomon said he wants the city to pay for about $1 million in improvements, including replacing the playing field and the fire suppression system. He also proposes changes in funding a stadium capital reserve fund to pay for future work.

“If the foregoing agreement is approved then the Fisher Cats will commit to remain in Manchester through 2035,” Solomon wrote an aldermanic committee this month.

The city’s deal with the stadium ends in 2028 when the stadium bonds are paid off.

The team pays a $730,000 rent-like payment plus another $167,627 a year to cover stadium building costs it agreed to pay beyond the $25 million stadium project.

Solomon, who took over ownership of the team in 2005 after the stadium was built, is offering to pay the city $500,000 a year in rent beginning in 2029 so long as half that amount is earmarked for a capital reserve fund that could be used for stadium maintenance.

City Finance Director William Sanders said an agreement between the city and the team says the team is responsible for all maintenance.

“Bond counsel has a letter and the solicitor agrees that the baseball owners are responsible for the maintenance, but I don’t believe this is maintenance,” said downtown Ward 3 Alderman Pat Long, who chairs an aldermanic committee that has been considering the issue.

The letter from bond counsel Robert Beinfield said the management and operations agreement does make the team “at its sole expense” responsible for alterations, improvements and replacements, including capital improvements as are necessary or desirable to maintain or improve the ballpark.

Long said the baseball field should have lasted 15 or 20 years but was “beginning to degrade after eight years.”

“If something is deficient, it’s not maintenance,” he said.

The aldermanic committee earlier this year supported bonding the requested stadium improvements but now is looking at using one-time city revenues to avoid borrowing, Long said.

He also said he favors accepting Solomon’s extension offer.

“An extension of the lease does the city better,” Long said. “We have more of a commitment.”

Long said he also backs the stadium improvements.

Mayor Ted Gatsas, who’s been involved in the discussions, said: “Negotiations are ongoing until you have a final agreement.”

Solomon declined to discuss the matter until he reaches an agreement with aldermen.

City taxpayers already have paid more than $5.1 million toward the stadium costs because expected development around the stadium hasn’t produced predicted property tax revenues, Sanders said. The team has paid all its stadium commitments, more than $10 million so far.

The Fisher Cats produce nearly $15 million in direct and indirect economic spending yearly, according to a feasibility study conducted in February by Doug Blais, professor of sport management at Southern New Hampshire University.

Blais said the study’s most important number is the nearly $5.8 million in annual income created by the team and area businesses.

“That’s income that is generated and stays in the community,” Blais said.

Solomon blamed the playing field and fire suppression system issues on “initial faulty construction and the inadequate quality controls.”

The team pays $35,000 a year into a stadium capital reserve fund but is willing to increase that to $100,000 a year.

Solomon said work on the field needs to get started this year while the fire suppression system can get replaced next year.

Under Solomon’s proposal, for the next five years, if the stadium capital reserve fund doesn’t cover capital expenditures in a given year, then the team would fund the additional money required.

After five years, if the capital reserve funds prove inadequate for any year, then the additional funding would be split 50-50 between the city and team “after both parties agree on the need.”

The team would continue to pay all “normal maintenance,” Solomon wrote.

The $730,000 annual rent payment was reduced by $20,000 for the past four fiscal years, according to the city.

Long said some pipes are leaking at the stadium.

“They’re not the recommended pipe that should have went into this building, and that’s one of the issues,” he said.