Thursday, February 20, 2003

Florence baseball team up in air

Franchise plans could be stalled or dropped

By Gina Holt
Enquirer contributor

FLORENCE - Weather delays on a $5.5 million stadium and a tax lien may have put Northern Kentucky Professional Baseball on the bench for 2003 in Florence.

But the developer of the Florence team had a meeting Wednesday in Hamilton to talk about the team playing there.

Just two weeks ago, Gary Enzweiler, president of Northern Kentucky Baseball, announced that the construction of the $5.5 million, 4,000-seat stadium at the former Fantasy Frontier was on schedule and the Frontier League team would begin playing in June.

Enzweiler said Wednesday that he is not sure the team will ever play in Florence.

The groundbreaking ceremony was scheduled for Feb. 11 but snow delayed it.

"Given the weather, we're not going to be ready in Florence, so we're evaluating our options," Enzweiler said Wednesday.

He and Mayor Diane Whalen also said that a tax lien holding up Enzweiler's purchase of the Johnstown Johnnies franchise that would move to Florence is another factor in postponing - or maybe canceling - the first season.

Whalen said Enzweiler is looking at area stadiums.

Hamilton councilman Richard Holzberger said he, representatives from Northern Kentucky Baseball and other Hamilton officials met Wednesday morning.

"We explored some avenues where we would possibly help them play ball this year," he said.

He said Hamilton, which is about 40 miles from Florence, would like its own Frontier League team but can't have one without Mr. Enzweiler's permission because he has exclusive rights within a 50-mile radius.

"In exchange for helping them, we are hoping they would eliminate the mileage requirement to keep other franchises out of the area," he said. "We're not trying to do anything to jeopardize Florence. We just want to have a friendly rivalry, a cross-state shootout."

If the Florence team plays in Hamilton, it would use Foundation Field, which was built last year.

The field located in downtown Hamilton is primarily used by Miami University's Hamilton campus. It only seats 300 but Holzberger said modifications would be made by June so it could seat 1,500. He said the team would play in Hamilton under its Florence name.

If permitted, he said Hamilton would start its own team in 2005.

The Frontier League is a 10-year-old minor league franchise with teams playing at stadiums in Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, Missouri and Pennsylvania. The Florence team would be its first Kentucky team.

Whalen said she was told that Northern Kentucky Baseball is committed to Florence, plans to play in Florence in 2004 and that the team still has to play somewhere in 2003.

However, Mr. Enzweiler said the team does not have to play this year, and he does not know if there will ever be a team in Florence.

"Things are up in the air," he said. "There are 101 questions we don't have an answer to."

Those questions include whether team tryouts scheduled for March 1 will take place and how season ticket applications will be handled.

Northern Kentucky Professional Baseball has rights to but hasn't officially purchased the Johnstown Johnnies because of a tax lien.

Northern Kentucky Baseball had exclusive rights to that team but according to Jeff Koenig, Florence city administrator, anyone could buy the team now.

Frontier League officials in Zanesville, Ohio couldn't be reached for comment Wednesday night.

The city has entered into a 30-year lease last year giving Enzweiler's company the right to build a stadium on about 35 acres along Interstate 75.

"We feel like we're entitled to quality and professionalism," Whalen said. "We've worked through it to this point so I see no point in rushing it now."

Holzberger said he expects a decision as to where the team will play in 2003 or what Northern Kentucky Professional Baseball will do by Friday.

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