Norwich, Connecticut Tigers close to reaching new lease agreement

Norwich — City officials hope to reach an agreement with the Connecticut Tigers by April 1 on a new lease that would keep the minor league baseball team at the Thomas J. Dodd Memorial Stadium for many years to come, although perhaps not with the same name.

The Tigers will celebrate the team’s 10th season in Norwich starting in June at the stadium that also will mark its 25th season as a professional minor league baseball stadium. The team’s initial lease has a 10-year period expiring Dec. 31, 2019, but with three options for five-year extensions through 2034 under the same terms.

“We’re close,” Norwich Mayor Peter Nystrom said after several hours of closed-door negotiation meetings Friday — the first 90 minutes with team owner Miles Prentice and general manager Dave Schermerhorn, followed by another hour with just city officials and another hour with the team leaders. Nystrom, City Manager John Salomone, Deputy Comptroller Anthony Madeira, Baseball Stadium Authority Chairman Michael Jewell and member Gary Schnip and city attorney Aimee Wickless represented the city Friday.

Prentice called Friday morning’s session “very cordial and positive,” before departing to allow city officials to discuss their issues. He waited for word at the new Café Otis across the street from City Hall, where Nystrom and Madeira met with him again Friday afternoon.

Prentice said the parties discussed a possible name change, and he would prefer to change the name to “The Norwich somethings,” dropping the Connecticut title, and said the name doesn’t have to be Tigers, because the team could change Major League affiliation at some point in the future. The team is now a minor league affiliate of the Detroit Tigers.

“I like the ‘Norwich Pride,’” Nystrom said of a possible new name. Norwich Council President Pro Tempore William Nash suggested that name. “The city seal is a lion, so Norwich Pride would work well.”

Prentice declined to discuss details of the talks but said if the city wants a new lease with another 10 years, with 15 years' worth of extensions, that would be fine. But he said he is “encouraging a partnership” with the city that would enhance the team’s revenues, which would benefit both entities.

Nystrom echoed that sentiment and said the city is interested in finding ways to help the team. One possibility would be to bring a professional European soccer team to Norwich to play at Dodd Stadium in the fall. The team would be part of an eight-team league playing in the New England region, Nystrom said.

“We’re having a good discussion of the issues,” Salomone said, “and we’re working diligently to reach an agreement.”

Any proposed lease agreement would have to be approved by the City Council, and Nystrom said the parties hope to iron out a proposed new lease by the end of next week to present in executive session to the City Council on April 1.

Both parties hope for a quick resolution to new lease negotiations to trigger the start of major renovations to city-owned Dodd Stadium.

As stadium owner, the city is responsible for capital improvements and major repairs to the stadium, while the team takes care of field maintenance and minor repairs during the season. The City Council approved an $800,000 bond last summer, including replacing the obsolete and inadequate stadium lights, which no longer meet Minor League Baseball regulations, with new LED lights and upgrading the stadium’s heating and ventilation system.

Both projects will use contractors already approved through a state bidding process, quickening the time to start construction, Salomone said. The new energy-efficient lights will provide the Tigers with big savings in electricity costs, he said.

Additionally, state Sen. Cathy Osten has co-sponsored two bills, which are pending in the current General Assembly session: one would provide a state bond grant of $500,000 to replace the aging stadium roof and repair the fencing and masonry, and the other would divert state ticket sales taxes into a repair fund for the stadium. Other stadiums and arenas in the state had such a diversion in the past but it was eliminated in state budget cuts; however, Dodd Stadium never received the benefit.

Osten said Friday both bills are pending with the General Assembly’s Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee.

The Tigers, a New York-Penn League Short-Season Single-A team, moved to Norwich from Oneonta, N.Y., in the spring of 2010 after the city lost its higher-level Double-A minor league team, the Connecticut Defenders, formerly the Norwich Navigators, which was affiliated with the San Francisco Giants and previously the New York Yankees. The Navigators played in Norwich from 1995 through 2009.

Prentice, under the ownership name Oneonta Athletic Corp., signed the initial 10-year lease with the city in 2010, with annual lease payments that started at $100,000 in 2010 and climbed to $120,000 this year. The lease contains three five-year options that could extend the team’s time at Dodd Stadium through 2034, capping with a lease payment of $165,000 in 2034. The lease has several provisions for payment discounts for the team or revenue sharing for the city under certain conditions.

The New York-Penn League season generally runs from mid-June through Labor Day weekend, with playoffs to follow. Prior to the season, Dodd Stadium hosts numerous high school and college baseball teams and several other civic events in the fall before shutting down most operations for the summer.

Norwich Free Academy plays its home games at Dodd, with the first game scheduled for April 3 against Woodstock Academy.

c.bessette@theday.com

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