Last fall, during the bi-annual period in which major league organizations can seek out new minor league affiliates, the St. Louis Cardinals made two changes. Initially, both moves looked like a step up.
In the short-season Class-A New York-Penn League, the Cardinals left behind the Batavia Muckdogs in favor of State College. The former is perennially last in the league in attendance, plays in an old facility and the money-losing club remains for sale. The Spikes have strong ownership and a state-of-the-art stadium on the campus of Penn State University.
The other move was in the Class-A Midwest League. Severing their ties with Quad Cities, the Cardinals returned to Peoria, their prior home from 1996-2004. A key benefit cited is the fact that Peoria is an hour closer to St. Louis than Davenport, Iowa.
All is not well with the Peoria Chiefs, however. The Peoria Journal Star reports the local owners are seeking financial assistance through public and private entities for a possible bailout.
The core of the problem appears to be with the debt structure for the team-owned ballpark, Chiefs Stadium. The facility opened in 2002 at a cost of $16 million and the club still owes $4.2 million. The city originally provided financing assistance for the downtown stadium and additional funds for infrastructure work.
Some of the financial difficulties became evident when the team was late paying its property tax bill in 2012, incurring fines in the process. The paper also reports an unnamed bank tried to force the club to pay off its mortgage last summer.
While local officials plan to meet to discuss possible next steps, there is no immediate threat to the on-field product. Chiefs President Rocky Vonachen acknowledged the club, owned by his family, is trying to refinance the stadium debt, but affirmed that the Chiefs will play ball this season.
Though it is on a much larger scale, the Cardinals’ Triple-A affiliate, the Memphis Redbirds, also has been saddled with unmanageable ballpark-related costs. The club defaulted on its bond payments and is now controlled by a firm specializing in distressed assets. The Redbirds and AutoZone Park have been for sale for several years but the size of the debt has proven to be a considerable inhibitor.
Peoria baseball fans can only hope the Vonachen family, the City and the Chiefs’ debtors come up with a solution that will somehow benefit all.