Saturday, July 24, 2004

Liens place Florence team in jeopardy

By Brenna R. Kelly
Enquirer staff writer

FLORENCE - The Florence Freedom owes more than $1.7 million to contractors building the team's new stadium; and if its owners don't pay up, the team could be homeless.

The debt is a violation of the team's lease with the city of Florence. If it's not paid after a 30-day grace period, the city will evict the team, said City Attorney Hugh Skees.

More than a month after it opened, Champion Window Field still is not finished. There was no work going on Friday as four contractors filed liens against Northern Kentucky Professional Baseball, the team's parent company.

Liens filed are for:
• $843,856 to Paul Michels and Sons.
• $40,364 to Central Acoustical Supply House.
• $267,960 to Georgia Golf Construction.
• $581,464 to JTF Construction.
The Freedom was playing in Kalamazoo, Mich., and majority owner Chuck Hildebrant and his wife, Connie, the team's general manager, could not be reached for comment.

The team has six home games remaining after the grace period ends.

In addition to the money owed to the contractors, the team's first lease payment of $197,617 is due to the city Aug. 10.

"I'm concerned about the lease payment with the issues that have been brought forward in the last couple of days," said Florence Mayor Diane Whalen. "That would be another violation of the lease."

Though the stadium is privately owned, it is built on land the city bought for $5 million. The team has a 30-year lease and is required to make two payments a year.

If the team defaults on the lease, or folds, the city will own the stadium.

The city also required Connie and Chuck Hildebrant to show that their personal assets could cover the cost of the $8 million stadium. The guarantee is not released until the stadium is complete. That means the city could go after the assets to ensure it's finished.

"He's on the line for all of it," Whalen said.

Work stopped on paving at the stadium July 16, said Joe Michels, vice president of Paul Michel's Construction.

His company has not been paid and filed a lien for $843,856 Wednesday.

"We needed to do it to protect our interest," Michels said. "We are working with all the parties involved to ensure everything will work out in the end."

Central Acoustical Supply House, JTF Construction and Georgia Golf Construction have also filed liens against the team.

The companies also filed liens against money Florence is paying to the team. Skees said the only city money going to the team is $375,000 for public parking. at the site. But the city has withheld payment because the parking lots have not been paved.

The 4,500-seat stadium opened June 18 to its largest crowd of the season - 4,453.

Before that game, Connie Hildebrant said the Frontier League team needed to average 2,500 fans per game to break even. It's averaging about 1,800 per game.



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