Harrison County

Why aren’t there more non-baseball events at MGM Park?

Biloxi Shuckers groundskeeper Will Lairamore watched nervously as a crew erected a stage at second base of MGM Park. It was five days before the Shuckers’ 2017 home opener and he wanted everything to be perfect.

Having a stage at second base wasn’t part of his plan.

When Biloxi agreed in 2014 to take on a $21 million bond to help pay for the stadium, the city expected to get revenue from more than just baseball.

A 2013 economic-outlook report by Johnson Consulting of Chicago said the city should expect revenue from 20 non-baseball events, as well as 16 college and high school baseball games.

MGM Park hosted 25 extra baseball games last year, but has seen few non-baseball events.

“Many of us have looked at the stadium as a baseball venue, but it is so much more,” said F. Cliff Kirkland, Biloxi civic innovation and development officer, on the city’s website in February 2015. “Having a first-class facility like MGM Park gives Biloxi the opportunity to offer bigger concerts and more diverse cultural entertainment events.”

Two years later, Kirkland sees the park differently.

Being an open-air venue is the “biggest drawback,” Kirkland said.

If you book an act, he said, you have to pay them even if the show is rained out. Insurance against that risk is available, but expensive.

The grass is another main factor.

Minor League Baseball has very stringent standards for field conditions, and allowing several hundred or several thousand people on the field for a concert is not a viable option.

That eliminates holding a big-name concert that would put the stage in center field during the six-month baseball season, as well as the two months leading up to the season when the grass is being groomed, Kirkland said.

That leaves late September to February to stage events, when temperatures are less inviting for outdoor shows.

“We need to put on events to help us meet our debt every year, to raise revenues for that, but it’s very delicate what you can do with that,” Kirkland said.

He was originally hired as a consultant by the city for $46,000 a year to stage 10 events annually at the stadium. Biloxi staged three events in 2015, and two others were put on by Overtime Sports.

In 2016, according to a response to a Sun Herald public-records request, only two non-baseball events were held. Kirkland was later hired as civic innovation and development officer at a salary of $96,000 to be the “primary contact for those looking to do business in Biloxi,” according to the city’s website.

“I think the city is working diligently to produce events,” said Tim Bennett, CEO of Overtime Sports. “I think what’s happened is the city quickly realized that it’s not as easy to put on an event as it appears.”

Overtime, whose job it is to stage events, recently bought a $45,000 ground-cover system that can protect the infield grass for events with the stage set up at second base. The system was used last weekend for the Spring Break Explosion concert and the infield grass survived.

However, that concert only drew 300 spectators. Most of the other non-baseball events at MGM Park have had similarly dismal attendance figures.

Last year, the city received $21,000 in ticket revenue from non-baseball events that drew 22,499 people. That’s well below the $103,000 the Johnson report said the city could expect.

“These facilities cost a lot of money to build and they don’t pay for themselves on 70 baseball dates of minor league baseball,” Bennett said. “If you rely on that, then you’re sadly mistaken. You’ve got to do those other events in here.”

Longtime Biloxi resident Lucy Denton said she’d like to see more events to help boost development downtown.

“It sits empty too much,” she said. “It needs to be a happening spot.”

Bennett said he’d working with the city to make that happen.

“We have got to understand that this is the community’s stadium,” he said. “We made a promise to put as many events as we could in here with as minimal an impact on the team.”

Bennett points to pre- and post-game concerts that have been hosted by the Shuckers’ parent club, the Milwaukee Brewers, and a sold-out Mumford and Sons concert at the New Orleans Double-A baseball stadium that drew 15,000 in April 2016.

“There’s ways to do it,” Kirkland said, “We’ve got to figure it out.”

John Fitzhugh: 228-896-2193, @JFitzhughPhoto