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WVU baseball: Mountaineers, New York-Penn League working on a deal

MORGANTOWN - West Virginia University called on the closers Tuesday.

The presidents of the New York-Penn League and Minor League Baseball were at a morning press conference at the Jerry West Lounge inside the Coliseum, hoping to solidify the outcome for the tax-increment financing (TIF) district that would not only give WVU a new baseball stadium, but also bring a short-season Class A minor league team to the city.

"It's a phenomenal asset, not only for Morgantown, but the surrounding communities," said Pat O'Connor, president of Minor League Baseball. "It's a win-win that includes the university to the highest level. It's a facility to be proud of, but also a facility to help recruit better players, host regional tournaments and help elevate the game literally and figuratively.

"You will not regret what you're about to do from an economic standpoint, a quality-of-life standpoint and an affordable family fun standpoint."

There's work to be done, though. WVU Athletic Director Oliver Luck, who was out of town for business Monday, announced in February 2012 a plan to have a TIF district formed in which sales tax and property tax revenue generated above a set figure would fund construction.

The TIF district would be at Granville's University Town Center and welcome more shops and restaurants to what already exists.

Senate Bill 125 has already passed the Senate Finance Committee and the full Senate and is now in the House Judiciary Committee, with a vote possible this week.

If it passes there and then with the full House, it must be approved by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and WVU's Board of Governors.

"I've been around long enough to know, as Yogi Berra says, it ain't over till it's over, but we feel very good about it," O'Conner said. "There are a lot of places I can be on March 26. It's my pleasure to be here and it is indicative of the excitement we share for the possibility of this project coming to fruition."

Ben Hayes, President of the New York-Penn League that would relocate a franchise to Morgantown, said Tomblin is "in favor of" the bill and that the office for economic development has approved the bonding capacity of the TIF.

The bonds will cover $16 million, but Deputy Director of Athletics Mike Parsons said the construction could cost up to $18 million.

"Generally speaking, there are obviously things that everyone needs to bring to the table, so to speak," Hayes said. "We don't believe the TIF is going to build our stadium completely, so there's going to be some expectation that the minor-league club participate and West Virginia participate."

A price tag is too hard to determine until the groups meet with a criteria developer who will help configure plans that meet the vision for WVU and the New York-Penn League, but also specifications required for a minor league ballpark.

The Mountaineers, who are playing Big 12 Conference home games in Charleston and Beckley this season, don't plan on having the stadium ready for the 2014 season.

Parsons said WVU has a two-year contract with the ballparks in Charleston and Beckley, but can exit it for the second year if the proposed stadium is ready. The New York-Penn League is hopeful the process concludes quickly enough to begin play in June 2014.

Who plays in the stadium near the Star City exit off Interstate 79 is unknown. A team will be selected and then submit a relocation application to the league, which has to be approved by the league's board of directors, O'Conner and the commissioner's office.

"We don't take relocations lightly," Hayes said. "The communities we serve and that host us are fantastic communities and some have been with us from the inception of the league in 1939. Some cities have not been able to maintain development through time and regressed somewhat economically and that has affected operations.

"We do have two or three clubs that could relocate. It's not a lack of clubs. It's finding a good place we want to call home and we believe we have found that."

Keeping the stadium busy and the surrounding area lively will be a key. WVU would play home games in March, April and May and Fairmont State has begun discussions to play games at WVU's stadium. There are possibilities the West Virginia Conference could play its tournament there and that an NCAA regional and American Legion games and could also visit.

There's more than baseball to consider, though.

"It's an opportunity for other events, as well," Hayes said. "The one thing minor league operators do very well is utilize their facility throughout the whole year, whether it be for concerts or other type of events, like corporate outings. There is always a desire to use the facility to the fullest."

Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at mikec@dailymail.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.


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