Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Double whammy: League terminates Gastonia Honey Hunters, city seeks to evict

Gastonia’s professional baseball team has been kicked out of its league and the city filed a lawsuit last week to evict the franchise out of its home stadium.

The double whammy is disappointing news for the financially troubled Gastonia Honey Hunters franchise that began play in 2021 in a stadium built by the city in an effort to boost downtown.

“We can confirm the Atlantic League has terminated the membership of NC Gas House Gang, LLC d/b/a Gastonia Honey Hunters. The Atlantic League intends to field a team in Gastonia in 2024,” Rick White, president of the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball, wrote in an email to Business North Carolina.

The Gastonia lawsuit alleges the Honey Hunters still owes the Atlantic League $1.1 million of the $2.45 million in fees to join the league. White declined to discuss details of the league’s termination of the team.

The lawsuit, filed Friday in Gaston County Superior Court, also references needing the court to help evict the Honey Hunters immediately so that it can attract a new baseball team for 2024. Neither White nor the city of Gastonia would discuss plans for a new team to occupy the 2,000-seat CaroMont Health Park, named for the local healthcare system in a sponsorship deal.

Veronica Jeon, COO of the Honey Hunters, declined to comment, citing the legal action.

“However, we look forward to providing additional information as soon as we can. We thank everyone for the continued support,” says Jeon via a text message. Team owner Brandon Bellamy, a real estate developer who owns Maryland-based Velocity Companies could not be reached for comment. He is the sole Black majority owner of a U.S. professional baseball team.

Gastonia’s lawsuit cites the team’s financial problems, including not paying its local bills, and apparent lack of stadium maintenance for asking for the court’s help in evicting the team. The city also seeks unspecified financial compensation from the team.

“Again, now that Defendant Team has lost its membership in the Atlantic League, promissory note has been declared in default, and the city has sent its final notice, Defendant Team has even less incentive to meet its ‘absolute and unconditional’ obligation of Defendant Team,” the lawsuit states. “If the city is to secure (a) successor lessee for its stadium in time for the new Atlantic League baseball season in 2024, the stadium cannot be left in disrepair for months by the defaulted and exiting Defendant Team.”

“The city must be able to secure the stadium and surrounding premises, terminating or suspending Defendant Team’s right of possession with immediate effect,” the lawsuit states.

The Gastonia Honey Hunters were participating in league activities as late as Nov. 2, and had announced its planned 2024 season, set to begin in late April. Eleven teams play in the Atlantic League, including the High Point Rockers.

Each team is required to have a minimum number of players who have played in Major League Baseball. None of the Atlantic League teams are affiliated with Major League Baseball, unlike minor league affiliates, such as the Charlotte Knights, Durham Bulls and others in the state.

This summer, the Honey Hunters faced public scrutiny from the Atlantic League and the city of Gastonia over its finances. The team owed the city of Gastonia $35,808 for the current year’s stadium lease, which was paid six months late. The team also was in arrears to Gaston County for more than $22,000 for services provided by its emergency medical services group. The team also paid that amount.

Paychecks to employees were also late and the team had failed to pay vendors. Jeon disclosed this summer that the team had experienced financial difficulties, but that conditions were improving and it planned to remain in Gastonia.

The Honey Hunters still owes the city a portion of the money CaroMont Health pays for naming rights for the stadium. The 2022 payment for naming rights was due on Oct. 31, 2022, and was not paid until Aug. 3, 2023. This year’s payment was due on Oct. 31, 2023, and remains unpaid. CaroMont Health has declined to disclose its naming rights expense.

The lawsuit also alleges the Honey Hunters had its gas service interrupted due to a lack of payment, which resulted in the malfunctioning of an emergency generator. The city also pointed out to poor upkeep of stadium restrooms, accumulation of trash, weeds, unattended leaks and mold at the stadium.

“In sum, virtually every public-facing or public-use component of the premises was in woeful condition after what appears to have been months of maintenance neglect in the off season, to say nothing of ongoing issues arising during the season,” the lawsuit alleges.

The city says the stadium has a tax market value of almost $7.5 million.

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