The Louisiana Stadium and Expedition District Chairman Ron Forman signed the lease agreement Wednesday giving it management of Zephyr Field and extending the New Orleans Zephyrs' lease for at least five years.
The signing comes while the sale of the Zephyrs, the city's Class Triple-A Minor League Baseball team, to former Pawtucket Red Sox owner Lou Schwechheimer nears completion.
“The good news is this is an affirmation that the Zephyrs will remain in New Orleans indefinitely,” said Zephyrs vice president and legal counsel Walter Leger, who negotiate terms of the new lease with the LSED.
The agreement, which had been negotiated during the past six months, would extend an existing release to 2021 with an option on the part of the Zephyrs to extend another five years to 2026. The current lease was to expire Sept. 30, 2016.
The signing took place at the LSED's regular monthly meeting at the Superdome. Don Beaver, the team's current owner, already had signed the agreement. The LSED, also known as the Superdome Commission, manages and maintains the Superdome, Smoothie King Center, Champions Square and the Alario Center. The maintenance aspect was the key component of the new lease.
“The LSED and the state has put a high priority on (having) the very best sports city in the country,” Forman said. “Baseball is a big part of that, and the Zephyrs are a big part of our community. So, we wanted to put an agreement together that – much like our other facilities – we maintain it with our expertise that allows for a first-class stadium that speaks for a long-term commitment for an owner that wants to be in New Orleans.
“Keeping baseball in New Orleans was a high priority.”
Since 1997, when the Zephyrs moved into newly constructed Zephyr Field, the team has managed the stadium 365 days a year, assuming all related costs and expenses, although the LSED owns the facility.
“What we've done is change the lease to be more consistent with the leases that are involved in the use by the other sports teams of the Superdome and Smoothie King Center,” Leger said. “That is, we will have exclusive use of the stadium for any baseball activities and other activities as agreed to in the lease.
“Otherwise, we had maintenance obligations. Now, the LSED, through (Superdome Management Group) will take over the maintenance of the stadium in terms of capital improvements and otherwise.”
Evan Holmes, director of business operations for the LSED/SMG, said “the LSED will assume repairs and general maintenance of the stadium, and the Zephyrs will be maintain their team areas – offices, the playing field, club houses and batting cages areas, which is what the team wanted.”
The Z's also will be responsible for game day – the ushers, ticket-takers and the like, and will receive the proceeds from concession.
Holmes said the LSED already has plans for capital improvements, and that it will put on other events there.
Zephyrs general manager Mike Schline had said stadium upkeep of the stadium, including offseason, cost the team “well over $500,000.” More money now will be able to go into promotions and the fan experience, Schline said.
“This puts us in a better financial position,” Schline said. “It relieves us of a lot of financial obligations that we would be putting into the facility. That money will be put back into the team to help the operations succeed in a way that we haven't been able to in the past.
“The team will be be financially successful.”
Zephyr Field has experienced decay in the 18 years since it was constructed. The LSED, Leger said, is interested in bringing the stadium's appearance and ammenities up to a standard that would improve fan experience. The Zephyrs have languished near the bottom of the Pacific Coast League, attendance-wise, and the condition of the stadium is considered one of the main reasons.
The sale of the team from Beaver to Schwechheimer and a minority group is imminent, sources said. Schwechheimer sold the Pawtucket team last year.