City ends struggling Ottawa Champions baseball team’s stadium lease

RCGT park
Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton Park. Photo provided

The City of Ottawa is renegotiating its lease deal with pro baseball’s Ottawa Champions after the club fell more than $400,000 behind in rent payments at the city-owned 10,000-seat stadium on Coventry Road.

In a memo to the city’s finance and economic development committee released Thursday, city staff said the club’s lease has been torn up and replaced with a “facility use agreement” that will see the Champions pay an hourly rate to rent the stadium just like any other tenant. According to the memo, the Champions asked the city to “consider a new arrangement” for operating the team after years of underperforming at the box office.

The Champions will now pay a commercial rate of $128.25 an hour to use the park, with a premium of $48.35 an hour tacked on for night games to cover lighting costs. The team will also pay the city $760 per game for extra staff support fees.

Under the new agreement, which must be approved by city council, the city expects to earn about $163,000 in revenues each year. The city will also reduce its maintenance standards for the stadium accordingly, bringing the park more in line with other municipal sports fields.

Champions owner Miles Wolff told OBJ the new deal, which will run through 2024, should save the club up to $300,000 over the course of a full season.

“With this lease, it certainly puts us on a much better financial footing,” he said, noting the club paid the city an average of about $8,000 a game under the previous lease, as opposed to about $2,500 under the new deal. “It’ll certainly make this a much more viable franchise.”

Ottawa Champions owner Miles Wolff. File photo

Under the old lease, which was signed in late 2013 and was expected to last for 10 seasons, the Champions paid a total of $358,000 a year to rent the facility. The city was also slated to receive 10 per cent of all gross concession revenues that exceeded $1.2 million per season, $1 for each car that parked in the stadium lot and 50 per cent of all net naming rights that surpassed $200,000.

But in Thursday’s memo, the city said the Champions’ revenue projections “are not being realized,” causing the team to fall behind in its rent payments. It blamed several factors, including the weather, a lack of resources to promote the club and poor access to public transit, a situation made worse by continued delays in the opening of the Confederation LRT line that services the nearby Ottawa train station.

“We were expecting the LRT to be ready last year,” Wolff said, adding the team has averaged only about 1,500 fans a game so far in 2019, thanks in part to “awful” weather in May. “There have been several things that we didn’t expect that came up, so here we are.”

Wolff said he’s hoping some hot, sunny summer days and the end of the school year will help boost the average attendance figure closer to 2,000 by season’s end.

“Once school is out, that’s when we really see an uptick,” he said. “July and August are always our best months.”

Wolff said he continues to seek new ownership for the team. When the Champions joined the Can-Am League in 2015, Wolff – who is also the league’s commissioner – agreed to own the franchise until Ottawa-based owners could be found.

“I never intended to own the club,” he said. “Hopefully, we can find (local buyers) sometime in the near future.”

Wolff said it didn’t help matters that the city has floated the idea of using the stadium and land around it for future affordable housing development. Many fans, he says, heard media reports about the proposal and assumed the stadium was destined for the wrecking ball.

“I just had a couple of fans come up to me last night saying, ‘Oh, this is the last year of the team,’” he said. “It’s tough to build fans if they think the team is gonna leave. In my mind, if we’re doing well, the city won’t tear down the ballpark. And if we’re not doing well, well then, in seven years or so, maybe they should. But it’s certainly nothing immediate.”

According to the city memo, the Champions have agreed to repay a total of $418,942 in outstanding rent to the city in several instalments. About $200,000 is slated to be repaid by Sept. 30, with the rest to be doled out in several payments from 2020 to 2023. Wolff said the first portion will be paid in July.

The city also said the new deal will allow it to explore “other revenue options” for the ballpark, such as hosting more special events. The report also said the parking lot could be rezoned to “broaden the scope of allowable uses and business opportunities.”

The finance and economic development committee will vote on the agreement at its next meeting on July 10.