Wednesday, November 3, 2004

Florence Freedom has a deal


New investors interested in minor-league team

By Cliff Peale
Enquirer staff writer

COVINGTON - The bankrupt Florence Freedom may have found a white knight.

Under a proposal filed Tuesday in U.S. Bankruptcy Court, new investors would put $3 million into the minor-league baseball team and the city of Florence and several dozen contractors would accept reduced payments on the team's debts.

The new group doesn't include Chuck Hildebrant, who is facing a federal investigation over bank loans he obtained to finance the team's ballpark overlooking Interstate 75 in Florence.

The sale of the Freedom's assets will come through a Bankruptcy Court auction, which should happen within four to six weeks.

The deal filed Tuesday is the opening bid for the auction.

"Now we have a real deal on the table," said lawyer John Schuh, who is representing the Freedom's owner, Northern Kentucky Professional Baseball LLC.

Said Florence Mayor Diane Whalen: "This is a big hurdle, but it's not completed. There are a number of things that could happen to derail it.

"It just reinforces that this is a good product, it's the right place, and done correctly it could be extremely successful."

The new investors are led by Clint Brown, a Northern Kentucky businessman who founded marketing research firm Alliance Research Inc. in 1988 and retired after selling it in 1999.

"It's been his dream to own a minor-league baseball team, and now he has the opportunity to own one in his backyard," said Cincinnati attorney Marc Rubin, who is representing Brown in the deal.

Brown will be the majority owner but has offered small ownership stakes to former ownership partners Tom Niehaus, Bob Klensch and Rodger Kessler, Rubin said.

But other bidders have expressed interest and could emerge, Schuh said.

The original ownership group will continue in bankruptcy and use proceeds from the sale to pay as many of its debts as possible.

"If anyone is willing to pay more than that ($3 million), we are more than happy to talk with them," said Schuh.

"I am encouraged that we will have a sale."

On Thursday, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge William S. Howard will hold a hearing on whether the bid process can remain open, Schuh said.

The Freedom's owners filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Sept. 3 with debts of nearly $9 million.

Lawyers had rushed to complete a deal to sell the assets so the Freedom could play a Frontier League schedule next year.

That was in doubt after the past season, when contractors filed liens totaling more than $4 million against the ballpark, and Hildebrant resigned as managing member of the team in July after allegations surfaced over his bank loans.

The proceeds of the proposed sale won't cover the debts, which include the liens filed by contractors and a rent payment of $197,617 to the city of Florence missed by the Freedom's owners.

According to the filing Tuesday, major components of Brown's $3 million bid include:

• About $1.9 million distributed through a fund to about 30 creditors, including contractors who worked on the stadium.

Brown would contribute $1.3 million and the city of Florence would contribute $600,000, as long as the creditors dropped their lawsuit against the city.

• $800,000 to cover the cost of completing the ballpark, called Champion Window Field, which is about 80 percent completed. That would include the stadium and the sign.

The deal does not affect Hildebrant's personal financial and legal situation. The Morrow man has been ordered by two Ohio judges to repay $4.5 million in loans to two banks. In September, several of his relatives sued him in Warren County Common Pleas Court, alleging he used fake documents to mortgage 204 acres of Warren County land he didn't own.

Staff writer Brenna Kelly contributed.

E-mail cpeale@enquirer.com




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