Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Ky. ballclub to finish at home


But city asks judge to evict Florence Freedom

By Brenna R. Kelly and Jennifer Edwards
Enquirer staff writers

FLORENCE - The Florence Freedom will get to finish the season at its home field - but then the city wants the team out.

The city asked a judge Monday to evict the team from Champion Window Field, citing at least 18 ways the owners of the minor league team violated their lease, from the "offensive" attitude of the general manager to not paying the rent.

The lawsuit filed in Boone Circuit Court also asks a judge to order the owners to complete the stadium and prevent anything from being taken from it.

"As liens began to mount and more and more revelations were made to the city, it became apparent that we needed to take a very hard look at our lease agreement and to protect ... the residents and taxpayers," Florence Mayor Diane Whalen said.

For the players, who were in Washington, Pa., Monday, the announcement means that they will get to play their final six games, which begin Wednesday, at home.

"They were scared leaving for the road trip," said Laura Renke, 41, who is hosting three players in her Walton home. "They weren't sure where they were going to play when they got back."

In addition to Northern Kentucky Professional Baseball LLC, the ownership group, the lawsuit names Connie and Chuck Hildebrant, part owners of the team who personally guaranteed the lease and provided financial statements to back up that guarantee.

The city contends in the lawsuit that those documents were false. The Hildebrants "deliberately and fraudulently misrepresented their personal financial situation to the city," Whalen said. The city is asking for punitive damages from the Hildebrants.

In September 2003, the city leased about 30 acres at U.S. 42 and Interstate 75 to Northern Kentucky Professional Baseball for the stadium. Under the 30-year lease, the stadium is owned by the city, but built and run by the ownership group.

The 4,500-seat stadium is about 80 percent complete. Work stopped in July after contractors filed liens saying they had not been paid.

As of Monday, 24 contractors had filed $4 million in liensThe team had until Monday to pay the first of the liens or default on the lease, which says the stadium must be debt free.

The team's owners also violated the lease by failing to pay $197,617 in rent. The owners paid the city $5,000, but the city returned the check later - saying it was "rejected."

The lawsuit cites other breaches, including failing to finish the stadium, notify the city of the naming rights partner, maintain insurance, provide adequate maintenance and provide enough parking.

Northern Kentucky Professional Baseball's lawyer, Dennis Buckley, could not be reached for comment Monday.

The lease also required that the owners' representatives "act in a professional, courteous, polite and inoffensive manner" at the stadium.

The lawsuit states that Connie Hildebrant, the team's general manager until the Frontier League took over operations last month, was "unprofessional, discourteous, impolite and offensive."

City Attorney Hugh Skees would not cite examples.

Records sealed

Because the Hildebrants signed the personal financial guarantee, they are liable for the rent and "all other sums," the lawsuit states.

Chuck Hildebrant, 45, owns 20 percent of the team and is the managing member.

The lawsuit states that the financial statement Hildebrant provided to the city "was a gross overstatement of his financial condition."

Earlier this month, a Boone County judge issued a restraining order to prevent the city from releasing the records after a request from Hildebrant's attorney.

The Enquirer has asked the judge to unseal the records.

"The city ... relied on the ... fraudulent representations and statements of Mr. Hildebrant and agreed to enter into the lease with NKPB," the lawsuit states.

In addition to problems with the city, FBI officials said last week that they are investigating Chuck Hildebrant and how he financed the stadium's construction.

Hildebrant also owes $4.5 million to two banks after judges ordered him to repay several loans.

Friday, Warren County deputies, responding to a court order, identified 85 items for seizure at the Hildebrants' Morrow home. They will be sold at auction if the loans aren't repaid.

Monday, Hamilton County Deputy Mike McAdams said he tagged for seizure a helicopter, a 1982 Bell 206B Jet Ranger, at the Blue Ash Airport belonging to one of Hildebrant's companies, The Hildebrant Group LLC.

Last week, a Kenton County judge ordered Heritage Bank to freeze Hildebrant's accounts.

Hildebrant's lawyer, Jack Rubenstein, could not be reached Monday. He has said his client is working to resolve all issues.

'The ultimate insult'

For contractors who are owed money, the lawsuit might make matters worse, said Dennis Nutley, president of Project Skills.

"I am not optimistic at all," said Nutley, whose company put waterproofing on the upper deck. "We are talking a lot of money. I'm afraid the contractors are pretty far down the line."

The lawsuit asks whether the contractors should have paid their workers the prevailing wage.

"If they have to go back and pay prevailing wages, that would be the ultimate insult," Nutley said.

Nutley, who is owed $42,490, said he didn't question the project because he has worked for the city before.

"We, I guess, maybe relied a little too much that they had investigated who they were getting in bed with," he said.

The city is asking for a restraining order because it's concerned about the property.

"We heard rumors that little things have been disappearing," Skees said.

The city wants the court to appoint a city employee as a receiver to take control of NKPB's assets, the team and the stadium, which will need maintenance to ensure that it is ready for next year, the city said in the motion.

A hearing for both issues is set for Sept. 22.

The city also asked the judge to decide the fate of $375,000 that the city was going to pay the ownership group.

The lease called for the city to pay Northern Kentucky Professional Baseball $750,000 for a public parking lot. The city paid the owners half of that, but withheld the second payment because the lot was never finished.

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E-mail bkelly@enquirer.com




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