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Norwich City Council approves two-year lease with Sea Unicorns

Norwich — The City Council late Monday approved a new lease for the Thomas J. Dodd Stadium with the Norwich Sea Unicorns, which will soon start their new life as a summer wooden-bat collegiate team.

The team's first home game is slated for May 31.

The aldermen expressed frustration over the events that cost the city its minor league baseball team with a Major League Baseball affiliation but said approving a two-year lease with a third-year option “by mutual agreement” was the best option for the city.

They also questioned the financial viability of a summer collegiate team but said the short-term agreement would allow the city to keep its options open, including the possibility of selling the city-owned property in the Norwich business park for development.

The Sea Unicorns will play in the eight-team Futures Collegiate Baseball League, which features college prospect players from throughout New England and the Northeast. The season runs from May 26 through Aug. 13, with 38 home games at Dodd Stadium and 20 road games.

The city had signed a new 10-year lease with the then-Connecticut Tigers, a Class A affiliate of the Detroit Tigers, in August 2019. But by fall, a plan was revealed by Major League Baseball to cut 42 teams from the minor league system, including eliminating the entire New York-Penn League, in which the Tigers played. The changes were to take effect after the 2020 baseball season, but COVID-19 canceled that season.

A copy of the new lease was not available late Monday, but the aldermen voted 6-1 in favor of a resolution calling for a two-year agreement running through Dec. 31, 2022, with the team paying $22,500 per year due in two equal installments on June 30 and Sept. 30. The team agreed to pay the city $91,000 in back rent payments due under the previous lease for 2019.

The team also will pay the first $30,000 for the cost of police and fire department coverage at the stadium and 50% of the cost of police and fire coverage in excess of $30,000. The team also will pay the first $50,000 in utility costs and 50% of utility costs above $50,000.

The aldermen and Mayor Peter Nystrom agreed the city and the team were not at fault for losing the Major League Baseball affiliation. Nystrom attributed the contraction of minor league teams to “greed” by Major League Baseball.

“I personally believe baseball in Norwich is winding down, at least at Dodd Stadium,” Alderman Joseph DeLucia said. “For reasons that don’t have anything to do with either party, we just had some bad breaks.”

DeLucia agreed the Futures League is “the best option we have in front of us, short of mothballing the stadium.”

The aldermen said the agreement would avoid the cost of shutting down the stadium and potentially tearing it down in the future.

Alderman Mark Bettencourt, who proposed the third-year option, said he wanted the city to have the most flexibility possible.

“If it’s viable, and I hope it is, we can agree to a third year,” Bettencourt said. “If not, we can work on the future.”

Alderman William Nash cast the lone dissenting vote. He said the stadium is competing with other demands by residents for funding to fix city tennis courts and recreation fields, fund schools and city functions. He said residents have other sports entertainment options. He said minor league baseball at Dodd Stadium was supposed to be a business, paying for itself.

Alderwomen Stacy Gould and Ella Myles said it would be wrong to shut down Dodd Stadium just as COVID-19 restrictions are being lifted across the state. Fans are ready to get out and enjoy games, they said. With the approved lease, Gould urged residents to support the Sea Unicorns, which still could field potential new major league stars.

“It’s not our fault,” Gould said. “Shame on Major League Baseball for doing that to our city. To lock up Dodd Stadium is unfair.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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