Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Gastonia gets a new baseball team and a promise to pay old debts

Gastonia has a new professional baseball team, and its new owner – Jacksonville, Florida-based Zawyer Sports and Entertainment – says it’ll start off by paying the bills owed by the owners of the former team known as the Gastonia Honey Hunters.

The new team will be known as the Gastonia Baseball Club when it begins its inaugural 126-game season April 25 at home. Part of coming to town involves making things right with the Gastonia community, says Andy Kaufmann who leads Zawyer Sports. 

Gastonia is “the kind of community that if you love them, they’ll love you back,” Kauffmann says while being introduced Wednesday at the city-owned stadium known as CaroMont Health Park. “So how are we going to love you back?”

Kaufmann then listed three ways:

  • Former employees of the team will receive unpaid back wages
  • Local vendors – from bus transportation to printers – will receive 100% of money owed
  • Events already scheduled at the ballpark by community groups will be honored.

The Honey Hunters – owned by the NC Gas House Gang led by Maryland real estate developer Brandon Bellamy – began play in the 10-team Atlantic League of Professional Baseball in the spring of 2021 during the pandemic. Gastonia had built the stadium the year before in an effort to spur development in a neglected area. Unlike minor league teams – such as the Charlotte Knights (Chicago White Sox) or Durham Bulls (Tampa Bay Rays) – teams in the Atlantic League are not affiliated with a Major League Baseball team. The High Point Rockers are the only other team in the league from North Carolina.

Financial trouble – highlighted by players refusing to take the field for a July 21 game until the league promised to pay them – led the Atlantic League to report it had terminated the Honey Hunters’ membership in the league in November. That same month, the city of Gastonia filed a lawsuit against the team asking the court to help it evict the Honey Hunters and its owners from its home stadium.

In December, NC Gas House Gang filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy listing about $4 million in debts, including several years of not filing federal income taxes. On Tuesday, lawyers representing the Honey Hunters and its owner reported the team had about $2.5 million in debt, but no money to pay its creditors. Bellamy’s company filed a countersuit against the city in an effort to regain access to the city’s stadium. The team claims it could generate about $100,000 in annual revenue if it could hold non baseball events in the stadium.

Those claims and the bankruptcy remain pending. “The legal process will work itself out,” says Ash Smith, city attorney for Gastonia. Gastonia City Council expects to sign a 15-year lease agreement with Zawyer Sports on Feb. 20, Smith says. That agreement will call for Zawyer Sports to pay the city $85,800 annually for the first five years, with a 5% increase for the next five and then another 5% increase for the last five years of the deal, Smith says. The Honey Hunters reportedly still owe the city about $100,000 for missing some of those payments and other stadium-related costs.

How much will the new owners have to pay to settle the former team’s debts? “It’s a number that we know will continue to grow as we get to know people, but we estimate it to be seven figures,” says Kaufmann. “But we wouldn’t have done this if we didn’t know we could take care of these folks.”

Unlike the previous owners, Zawyer Sports (named for Kaufmann’s sons Zachary and Sawyer) has sports ownership experience. The company made up of Jacksonville investors owns several hockey teams that play in the East Coast Hockey (AA) League, including franchises in Savannah, Georgia, Jacksonville, Florida, and Allen, Texas.

Atlantic League President Rick White says the league waived the customary $3 million membership fee Zawyer Sports would be expected to pay because the new owners have agreed to pay the debts of the former team. “The league will not receive a penny from this transaction,” says White, who was present at the new team’s introduction. “What the league is doing is making good on our obligations to the community that built us this ballpark.”

Financial troubles started almost immediately for the Honey Hunters, says White, and only grew worse. “We paid their bills for the second half of last season,” he says. “If it were not for us, they would have never finished the season.”

Veronica Jeon, the chief operating officer for the Honey Hunters, did not return a message seeking comment Wednesday. In the past, she has said part of the team’s difficulties go back to its starting operations during the pandemic.

While team ownership has changed, many of the team leaders will remain the same. Team manager Mauro “Goose” Gozzo will come back for a fourth year, as will other coaches. As for the name, the new owners say the community will help them select a permanent name for the team during its first season.

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