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Ballpark debate sparks fireworks from both sides

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WILMINGTON, NC (WWAY) -- WWAY and WHQR hosted the only baseball stadium debate Thursday night. Appropriately, with a big game comes fireworks, and the exchange was full of them.

"That's opportunity, and it's knocking at our door," Wilmington City Councilman Kevin O'Grady said while knocking on the table.

City leaders have answered that door, and voters will decide whether it stays open or closes. The big leaguers stepped up to the plate Thursday night. On the yes side, Councilman O'Grady and Mayor Bill Saffo. On the opposing was the "Vote No Tax Stadium" group's Scott Harry and Jim Rafferty.

The debate was marked by starkly different stances. The two sides clashed on whether the ballpark would spark direct spending and economic development.

"Go look it up. Go look up stadium economists, and you're gonna see page after page after page. They all say the same thing: it doesn't work," Harry said.

O'Grady countered, saying, "$168 million over 20 years. That's $8 million a year."

Mayor Saffo compared the potential success in Wilmington to that of other ballparks in North Carolina cities such as Durham and Fayetteville. He also voiced his disdain for how city leaders have been targeted in the community.

"Never before have I seen a group of elected officials vilified in the community because we are just bringing this up for discussion to ask you to make a decision in the democratic process," Saffo said.

O'Grady says the deal will put the taxpayer debt at $44 million over a 20-year period. The "Vote No" group argued that number is higher, at $75 million, which sparked heated banter.

"You have overstated the debt," O'Grady said.

Harry fired back.

"Great," he said. "This is the first time you've said the tax rate would drop."

The current agreement between the city and Mandalay and the Braves calls for a two and half cent increase for homeowners, per 100 dollars of property value. O'Grady says that rate will gradually decrease over the life of the loan.

When city leaders were asked if baseball would die if the referendum fails on Election Day, Mayor Saffo said, "I believe so. We're the only ones here at the table."

Councilman O'Grady echoed the mayor's stance.

"There will be no votes to do any other thing, because this is it," O'Grady said.

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