Plagued by everything from disputes about naming rights revenue to a flight cancellation preventing a face-to-face meeting, both sides in the long-delayed Billings Mustangs ballpark lease — club ownership and city officials — said the document should be signed later this month.
“I think we are really close,” said Councilman Larry Brewster, a member of the council committee that’s been negotiating with Dave Heller, the Mustangs' managing partner.
Councilman Dick Clark, also a member of the committee, said Thursday he’s spoken twice to Heller and agreed that the parties are close to an agreement.
“We are going to try to get the lease done later this month,” Heller wrote in an email, “though a lot of that timing is based on the City Council’s designated committee and when they can get together.”
City Administrator Tina Volek said the committee is tentatively set to meet with Heller by telephone or via Skype on March 22. Before then, the committee will meet with the city’s bond counsel, Dorsey & Whitney, to discuss the proposed lease’s potential impact on the tax-exempt status on the Dehler Park bonds, which are still being repaid.
City council members and Heller have sparred for months over each side’s share of the money regarding the possible renaming of the stadium, which can’t occur until 2032, and on other issues, such as updating the electronic scoreboard and scoreboard advertising revenue sharing.
But they have agreed on more immediate needs, including establishing a fund paid for by Mustangs' rental fees as the way to maintain the ballpark named last August by ballparkdigest.com as the nation’s best Rookie League baseball park.
“The Mustangs have a long history in Billings, and taxpayers have invested a lot of money in the ballpark,” said Mayor Tom Hanel. “We need to get this lease resolved.”
Hanel, who’s not on the committee but has, like Clark, also been in discussions with Heller, said he has “no doubt in ownership’s ability to perform and to promote the team. They are professional and knowledgeable, and they’re strong financially.”
The owners also plan on improving fans’ experience at the downtown ballpark, and the Parks and Recreation Department has in recent days taken at least one step in that direction.
A vendor who will be moving a fence back to 10th Avenue North to allow the ballclub to install a zip line and play area had been on site this week, said Parks and Recreation Director Michael Whitaker. But the recent snowfall has pushed that work back until next week. Once the fence-moving work begins, it’s expected to take two weeks.
Parks Superintendent Jon Thompson said the fence moving will also require some reconfiguration of the irrigation system, and that can’t occur until the system can be reactivated in April.
“Because they are moving the fence,” Thompson said, “some of the (sprinkler) heads won’t be in the proper location.”
Heller said his ownership partner, Bob Herrfeldt, has sold his interest in another ballclub Heller owns, the Quad Cities River Bandits, “but he is very much still part of our group in Billings.”
Heller said Herrfeldt is pursuing ownership of a Triple-A club, “so if that happens it would not be extraordinary for him to want to put his time, energy and money into that club rather than Billings.”
In an email, Herrfeldt said he is involved in a group pursuing a team, but a confidentiality agreement precludes him from discussing it. He also acknowledged his role with the Mustangs “has been diminished.”
For his part, Heller said he can hardly wait for the Mustangs' June 19 home opener against the Missoula Osprey.