Visalia residents root for Rawhide to stay

(Rigo Moran)

An ongoing dispute between the City of Visalia and Visalia Rawhide has come to standstill, residents have decided to take to the council after sharing their thoughts online

VISALIA – Residents of Visalia are voicing their thoughts about the city’s recent lawsuit against local Minor League Baseball (MiLB) team the Visalia Rawhide. The suit was filed after both parties disputed who should pay for stadium improvements enforced by the MiLB’s new governing body, the Major League Baseball division.

On Jan. 6, the City of Visalia posted a link to their official statement regarding the monetary issue to their Facebook, which garnered numerous replies from their constituents. While they don’t represent the entire population, all of the commenters seemed to be on the side of Rawhide, or more specifically, MiLB representation remaining in the city. Many also expressed plans to attend the upcoming council meeting on Jan. 16.

“The City of Visalia statement is laughable at best,” commented Chad Stafford. “You all want to spend taxpayer money for needless things, like…a special road design to accommodate bicyclists…and other things, but don’t want to spend money on something the city owns and signed a contract for that needs upgrades.”

These required stadium improvements are one of the many changes brought on by the MLB after their take over of the MiLB in 2021. According to the City of Visalia, First Pitch Entertainment, LLC (FPE) — the company that owns Rawhide — presented what the MLB’s required changes would mean for the stadium to city staff on June 4, 2021.

During their pitch, FPE representatives stated that the estimated cost of these improvements would be $10 million, an amount which they expected the city to pay due to its ownership of Valley Strong Ballpark. While not directly stated, the issue this pitch introduced is what eventually led the city to file the lawsuit on Dec. 21, 2022.

Ultimately, a year later almost to the date, Judge David Mathias issued his decision on the matter, not ruling in the favor of either party. His determination was made on the grounds there was no definitive language in the lease outlining which party is responsible to pay for the stadium upgrades.

“The court is faced with unresolved ambiguity in the terms of the lease, and neither party’s complaint can prevail solely by reference to the lease terms,” wrote Mathias after his Dec. 22, 2023 decision. “It does not appear from the evidence presented in this case that the parties contemplated…either the removal or replacement of the MiLB by MLB as the Minor League governing entity or the substantial Rawhide Stadium improvement costs at issue in this case.”

Regardless of who’s meant to pay what according to the lease, vocal Visalia residents feel like it would be wrong for the city to allow Rawhide to lose their MiLB license should improvements not be made by the compliance deadline, which has already been extended to April of this year.

“The history of baseball in Visalia runs deep,” said community member Amanda Pichurko. “We have a little gem of professional baseball in this town. I’ve been a season ticket holder since 2011 and I love that professional baseball is accessible to the community. It would be a detriment to the community to lose the connection to professional baseball.”

Pichurko continues by sharing that her daughter essentially grew up in Valley Strong Ballpark, which is where she got her first job when she was 16, making her one of the “many, many people” who have been employed in Visalia due to the presence of the team in the stadium.

“This is something that not only impacts people who go to the stadium to watch the sport but those who are employed there and who use it to advertise their own local businesses,” Pichurko said. “This alone should drive the city to be more proactive in their efforts to maintain the stadium.”

It’s clear from many of the comments, as well as Pichurko’s statement, that residents plan to make their voices heard at the upcoming council meeting. Some citizens, such as Douglas Smith, went as far as saying the city’s “board members need to go” due to them not acting in the interest of their constituents.

“I hope that anyone who’s ever attended a game or event at the ballpark make their voices heard in support of the city making good on their responsibilities as the owners of the ballpark and bring the stadium up to code,” Pichurko said. “It would be an absolute shame to lose baseball in this town.”

A few commenters pointed out the inconsistencies shared in the city’s official statement, such as their claims of trying to further mediation between themselves and FPE even though the city has failed to have “anyone with decision making authority shown up to previous discussions.” This was mentioned by Pichurko in her initial comments, and even voiced by FPE president Sam Sigal in a past Sun-Gazette article.

“The city has never sent a decision maker to any mediation or settlement conference, except the city manager did attend the final mediation with no time left before trial, which proved completely fruitless,” Sigal said in a past interview. “No city council member has attended any dispute resolution meeting, despite our repeated requests for at least one or two.”

Pichurko also pointed out that if the city wanted to reach a settlement with the team, they wouldn’t have initially filed the lawsuit “to try to get out of paying” for the park’s improvements.

Regardless, should a payment decision not be reached by the April deadline, and the proper changes not be made, the fate of Visalia Rawhide’s license may become uncertain, which could affect their 2025 season. Not only will this mark a loss for Rawhide’s spectators but also the city itself as the team’s presence brings in an estimated $4.6 million dollars annually to the local Visalia economy through direct operations and indirect, third-party expenditures and $75,000 annually in local tax revenue.

Regardless, should a payment decision not be reached by the April deadline, and the proper changes not be made, Visalia Rawhide could lose their license, which leaves the fate of 2025 season uncertain. Not only will this mark a loss for Rawhide’s spectators — should they leave Visalia — but also the city itself as the team’s presence brings in an estimated $4.6 million dollars annually to the local economy through both direct and indirect operations, third-party expenditures and $75,000 annually in local tax revenue.

As reported by The Sun-Gazette previously, the team’s presences helps to support an estimated 68 full and part time jobs and $1.6 million annually in wages and benefits associated with those jobs; on top of this, the Sigal family donates $25,000 a year — since buying the team in 2019 — to organizations such as Food Link of Tulare County, Visalia Rescue Mission, the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Sequoias and Kaweah Health Medical Center.

In contrast, should the team lose their license and the stadium remain vacant, the city would still have to spend approximately $300,000 in yearly maintenance-related costs – costs which would serve no economic benefit to the city and the community, who wants the team to stay.

“I’m disappointed that they’re not looking to handle this issue in a way that benefits the city,” Pichurko said. “This is the bare minimum the city needs to do in order to keep the stadium going for us to maintain professional baseball.”

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