Lake County Fielders threaten folding 'within days'
Lake County Fielders boss Richard Ehrenreich says he may be "within days" of folding the independent league team if Zion doesn't commit to starting construction of a permanent baseball stadium this month.
Zion officials contend Ehrenreich's Grand Slam Sports and Entertainment, the Fielders' parent company, owes $185,000 in back rent for use of the city's temporary baseball facility dating to the team's 2010 inaugural season.
State taxpayers funded $1.3 million in infrastructure and utility work for Zion's makeshift ballpark that's rented to the Fielders. The facility has 4,500 temporary seats and permanent elements such as lights, the playing field, dugouts and a parking area at Route 173 and Green Bay Road.
But Ehrenreich said a permanent seating bowl, a concourse with concession stands and bathrooms were promised by the city for this year as part of a 25-year agreement with the North American Baseball League's Fielders.
Ehrenreich said he's stopped paying rent on the temporary diamond because there is no hint of a permanent stadium coming. He said Thursday that Zion must commit to starting on the permanent ballpark this month because the Fielders are in the second year of playing in a temporary facility, which is causing financial stress.
"I think we're certainly within days (of folding) if they're not going to come to the table to discuss this with us," Ehrenreich said.
Zion Mayor Lane Harrison couldn't be reached for comment Thursday. Earlier in the week, he said the city attorney advised him to not comment and then provided a written statement to the Daily Herald regarding Zion's position on the Fielders.
"The city council and city staff continue to explore options which would enable the city to finish construction of the stadium," the release states. "However, with the baseball team in default, the city is cautiously examining its options so it doesn't end up with a completed stadium and no team to play in it."
Ehrenreich recently received a default notice from Zion that's a formal demand for the $185,000 in unpaid rent. City Attorney Paula Randall said the Fielders may continue playing at the facility while the matter is unsettled.
Zion went public Tuesday after responding to a Daily Herald Freedom of Information Act request for Fielders-related documents. The team owes $60,000 of a $100,000 rent tab for the 2010 season and hasn't paid $125,000 for this year.
Ehrenreich, however, questioned the validity of Zion's back rent demand, including a $50,000 facility payment for May, saying the city didn't obtain the temporary stands until June.
In the release, Zion stated the Fielders, the stadium site's owner and the city have been unable to agree on funding of construction costs for a permanent facility. Zion maintains city money cannot be the only revenue source.
Zion also claims it won't be receiving further state funding the city was led to believe would pay for the entire ballpark. The most recent ballpark plan was estimated at $7.5 million.
Actor Kevin Costner, who starred in the baseball classic "Field of Dreams," who had been billed as a Fielders co-owner and was wearing a team cap when he visited the temporary stadium on an off day last year. Ehrenreich said Costner is an investor and aware of the Fielders' situation.
Costner's publicist, Arnold Robinson, has refused to make him available for an interview. Robinson would only say that Costner "is not involved in the operations of the Fielders."
Ehrenreich previously owned the now-defunct Schaumburg Flyers independent league baseball team. The village of Schaumburg and the Schaumburg Park District had the Flyers evicted from the publicly owned Alexian Field in February, claiming the team owed about $920,000 in overdue rent and other payments.
Flyers ownership, per a judge's order in that case, was directed to pay $551,829 in overdue rent. Ehrenreich said the Flyers were a limited-liability corporation and don't have assets to pay the judgment.
As for the Fielders, they have 29 homes games scheduled from Friday through the finale Sept. 5 against the Edmonton Capitals. The Fielders have a now-iffy final road trip to Maui for four games from Aug. 10 to 13.
"Why would we continue to lose money every day in this project?" Ehrenreich said. "That's just irresponsible."
Kevin Outcalt, the California-based North American Baseball League's chief executive officer, said the Fielders must meet the obligations of their operating-rights agreement. He said that includes putting a team on the field through the season.
"If not, they would be responsible for substantial damages to the other teams in the league and their franchise will be terminated," said Outcalt, adding he expects the dispute to be settled and the Fielders will play out the schedule.