The official unveiling of the Winston- Salem minor league baseball team’s new name at the Millennium Center on Dec. 4 seemed a world away from the harsh realities facing many of Forsyth County’s residents. The general gaiety of the event enjoyed by an estimated 700 people felt like a scene out of the Roaring ’20s, like the day before the stock market crash of 1929. Coincidentally, the following day, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that payrolls nationwide contracted by over half a million jobs last month and unemployment rose to 6.7 percent. The under-employment rate — the broadest measure of weakness in the job market — soared to 12.5 percent. The loss of 533,000 jobs is the largest monthly payroll loss since the 1970s. In total, jobs are down by 1.9 million nationwide since the recession began, according to the bureau’s report.
At the end of October, the NC Employment Security Commission reported Forsyth’s unemployment rate at 6.3 percent. The number of unemployed individuals in Forsyth has risen 35.4 percent since the same period in 2007. Since Jan. 1, 2008, nine Forsyth employers have reported layoffs and 30 area businesses have shuttered their doors, putting more than 1,000 people out of work. And those are just the ones that have been reported.
Despite the hard times in Forsyth, the show went on at last week’s ceremony to announce the new name of the team formerly known as the Warthogs. Baseball Downtown and Mandalay Baseball, the managing entity of the minor league franchise, spared no expense at the event called “Baseball New Year.” When the team’s multi-millionaire owner, Billy Prim, and Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines unveiled the team’s new name — the Dash — the crowd roared its approval. All of this left me to wonder: Why would the city and the county agree to loan a multimillionaire upwards of $24 million to build a downtown ballpark when those funds could be more wisely spent on the needs of the homeless, the jobless and the hungry in Forsyth County? The Winston-Salem City Council agreed to put up $12 million toward the construction of the downtown ballpark in November 2007. In March of last year, the Forsyth County Commissioners approved a resolution allowing Prim’s company, Sports Menagerie LLC, and Brookstown Development Partners to receive economic development incentives up to $12.5 million to be paid in annual installments over a 25-year period. At that time, the economic outlook in Forsyth wasn’t as bleak as it currently is, but the picture wasn’t rosy by any stretch. In fact, Joines and the city council are four years into a 10-year plan to fight chronic homelessness. Andrea Kurtz of the United Way of Forsyth County is tasked with implementing the plan. Kurtz said the recession has pushed the resources of Forsyth’s social service agencies to their breaking point.
“Most economic expansions we’ve seen since the Great Depression, we’ve seen job growth surpass population growth.” Kurtz said. “But in the most recent expansion, population growth has outstripped job growth. As a result, we have seen families with not enough food to eat.” Times are so bad social service agencies are laying people off. Last month, CenterPoint Human Services, which manages mental health services in the area, announced it was laying off 12 employees. That is why it is baffling that in this economic emergency, elected officials are expending the city and county’s resources on a sports arena.
Prim’s companies, Sports Menagerie LLC and Brookstown Development Partners, have agreed to pay back the money they’ve borrowed from the city and county via surcharges on ticket sales and tax revenue generated by the stadium. Prim has also agreed that Sports Menagerie LLC will invest $8.6 million in the project. But now, Prim says his plans have changed. He wants to expand the stadium with entertainment venues, a club restaurant and a “Kids Zone,” bringing the total cost to $38 million.
Meanwhile, construction activity has slowed to a crawl, making the banners proclaiming that Dash Baseball will be coming to Winston-Salem next spring ring a bit hollow.
Prim explained the construction slowdown as part of an ownership restructuring process that could take some time. Apparently, Prim will now be the sole owner of the team and the stadium. Working out the arrangements may mean the stadium won’t be ready on Opening Day. So after all this, the Dash may have to play the first part of the 2009 season in an alternate facility. Considering the latest developments, here’s my first question: What exactly did the city and the county get out of this arrangement? The city of Winston-Salem sold Ernie Shore Field to Wake Forest for $5.5 million and put up that money as part of the $12-million incentive package for Prim and his partners. What if the city had taken that money and created a jobs program administered by Goodwill Industries instead? Wow, what a concept — job creation.
With the stroke of a pen, the city could’ve formed a study commission to formulate a jobs program to get the more than 11,000 unemployed workers back on their feet. Let’s face facts. With massive layoffs at Reynolds American and Hanesbrands, with Wachovia being sold to Wells Fargo and scores of business closings, this area is faced with an economic crisis unlike anything it’s seen since the Great Depression. At this critical time, the citizens of Forsyth are relying on their elected leaders to make prudent decisions about how to help its neighbors in need. So, here’s a starting point: Let’s stop loaning millions of dollars to wealthy entrepreneurs so they can increase their personal fortunes, and let’s start creating jobs for the thousands put out on the street through no fault of their own.
To comment on this story, e-mail Keith T. Barber at email@example.com.