How Salt Lake City tried to keep the Bees, and why it didn’t work

While a coalition of Utah’s most powerful people push for Major League Baseball on the west side, the Ballpark neighborhood, which hosted games for the past century, stands to miss out. Emails show that’s not how Salt Lake City wanted it to go.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Salt Lake Bees face the Reno Aces at Smith's Ballpark on Tuesday, April 18, 2023.

The Wasatch Front is teeming with big league potential.

If Salt Lake City secures a Major League Baseball franchise, and if that team plays in a new west-side stadium on North Temple, and if, throughout all of that, South Jordan hosts the Salt Lake Bees at a new Daybreak ballpark, it will seem like just about everyone will get to play ball.

Everyone, that is, except the neighborhood that has hosted the national pastime professionally for the past century.

That’s not how Salt Lake City wanted it.

Emails obtained through a public records request reveal Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s extensive efforts to keep the team from forgoing Utah’s capital for the suburbs and to alleviate fears that Bees owner Larry H. Miller Co. had about crime in the Ballpark neighborhood.

“My team and I worked so hard to try to keep the Bees in our city,” Mendenhall said in a recent Instagram video, “and when they decided to go, we were heartbroken about it.”

Mendenhall addressed the video to Ballpark residents, who may have been surprised by news that the Miller company was pursuing a major league club, saying the city joined the recently publicized effort only after the minor league team decided to move to the south valley.

Count Jack Waters among the Ballpark residents disappointed by the turn of events.

Waters hopes Salt Lake City can draw big league baseball, but he worries that when the triple-A affiliate of the Los Angeles Angels leaves Smith’s Ballpark for South Jordan after the 2024 season, it ultimately will leave his neighborhood with an underwhelming replacement.

“It’s just hard,” he said, “being kind of the forgotten neighborhood in this scenario.”

A neighborhood ‘deserving of commitment’

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Salt Lake Bees play the Reno Aces at Smith's Ballpark on Tuesday, April 18, 2023.

In a Jan. 24, 2022, email to Miller CEO Steve Starks, Mendenhall said many in the community were concerned about how a move would damage an already-struggling area.

“The Ballpark neighborhood is an area of our city that is deserving of commitment, resources, and support,” she wrote. “Stripping that neighborhood of the Bees baseball [team] would further exacerbate existing inequities and negatively impact generations to come.”

Starks responded two days later, saying no decision to relocate had been made, adding that the company was exploring alternative sites “in parallel” to working with the mayor and her administration on potentially staying in the city.

Mendenhall sent a June 3 email to Starks, saying the city intended to formally negotiate a long-term ballpark lease while working to adopt and implement the Ballpark Station Area Plan, a proposal to breathe new life into the community by showcasing the area around the stadium as a hub for activity.

She assured Starks the city was taking steps to improve public safety in the neighborhood.

On June 7, Starks wrote back, saying the company felt it imperative to begin discussions with the mayor and her staff to better understand solutions to public safety issues in Ballpark, future redevelopment plans and ways to bring the existing 15,000-seat stadium into compliance with league standards.

And there appeared to be some appetite on the company’s part to keep the team in Salt Lake City, at least in the short term.

“During our most recent conversation, we notified the city of our intent to enter into a new, six-year lease that coincides with our current [minor league baseball] franchise agreement and contains appropriate off-ramps,” Starks wrote. “I understand your desire to negotiate a longer-term lease and am happy to investigate what that looks like, but we believe a six-year term is most realistic. We know you are cognizant of the safety and neighborhood concerns around the ballpark, as we continue to experience unnerving public safety events each week that impact our guests and staff.”

Starks told Mendenhall the company had informed minor league baseball of its desire to negotiate the terms of a new lease over the summer, with hopes of reaching a resolution by fall.

Short-term deal was dead on arrival

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Salt Lake Bees play the Reno Aces at Smith's Ballpark on Tuesday, April 18, 2023.

In an interview this month, Mendenhall said a short-term lease was a nonstarter for the city because she and her administration wanted to make long-term investments in the Ballpark neighborhood.

The mayor sought a 25-year deal to keep the Bees in Salt Lake City. It would include major upgrades to the ballpark and options for restaurant and bar opportunities in the outfield seating area.

“You can’t develop revenue-generating systems if your partner is going to pull out in six years,” she said. “If you’re going to build outfield amenities and improved concessions and install new locker rooms, that doesn’t pencil for six years, and it also isn’t fair to the Ballpark neighborhood to lock up its development potential for a short-term extension.”

In an Oct. 14 email to Starks, Mendenhall’s chief administrative officer, Lisa Shaffer, struck a more urgent tone, telling the CEO that with only two years left on the ballpark lease, there wasn’t much time to implement the changes the city and company wanted for the stadium.

The mayor and City Council had publicly shown a strong financial commitment to the project, Shaffer wrote, and officials were prepared to make significant investments in the ballpark for repairs, renovations and improvements.

“A renovated ballpark and a long-term lease from both the Bees and the city are paramount,” she added, “toward a successful redevelopment and improvement in the quality of life in this neighborhood.”

MLB talks didn’t play a role, mayor says

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall speaks during an a groundbreaking event for the Power District development along North Temple, where a coalition of business, civic and government leaders is trying to bring a Major League Baseball team.

In the same email, Shaffer said city officials were excited about the “recent discussions and publicity” surrounding the potential of bringing a Major League Baseball club to Salt Lake City.

She told Starks the current lease negotiations and future options for an MLB team could and should happen in tandem.

“While we are optimistic, we do recognize that the MLB expansion franchise process can take several years and therefore we believe it is very important that the Bees and the city continue our discussions towards securing a new ballpark lease,” she explained. “Frankly, the mayor is not willing to wait much longer to make major investments in the ballpark area; the city is poised and ready to create transformative change in this neighborhood.”

Mendenhall said the city joined a Miller-led coalition of business, civic and government leaders, including Gov. Spencer Cox, courting MLB only within the past couple of months.

She insisted that talks of attracting an expansion franchise never factored into discussions about keeping the Bees in Salt Lake City.

“If it had,” she said in the video to Ballpark residents, “I would never make a deal in one neighborhood at the expense of another.”

Records show Mendenhall was open, however, to moving the Bees elsewhere in Salt Lake City.

In a Nov. 16 email, the mayor’s chief of staff, Rachel Otto, said Mendenhall had asked her to tell the Miller CEO about possibly putting a Bees ballpark downtown.

Mendenhall emphasized in the interview that her team was merely spitballing the notion that perhaps a Bees ballpark could go up north of the Utah Transit Authority’s intermodal hub at 600 West and 200 South.

“That vision included many other property owners who were never a part of the discussion,” the mayor said, “because it didn’t get legs.”

Email exchanges from last fall show talk between an executive with a Minneapolis-based construction company, Mortenson, and Mendenhall’s staff about potentially building an MLB stadium at Rocky Mountain Power’s 100-acre Power District on North Temple — the same site the Miller company announced this month as the preferred location for a major league ballpark.

The emails make no mention of the Larry H. Miller Co. being involved in the discussions, and city policy adviser Corey Rushton said at the time that talks of bringing MLB to Utah’s capital should not interfere with efforts to keep the Bees in the city.

“Finally, it is important to acknowledge and reiterate that as exciting as the prospect of welcoming a Major League team to Salt Lake City is, any plans or discussions at this point are separate and distinct and should not affect negotiations with the SL Bees/LHM Group,” Rushton wrote Sept. 23 to Mendenhall and her staff. “We can easily incorporate standard practices and potential lease provisions into an agreement with the SL Bees/LHM if a Major League team suddenly enters the Salt Lake territory that would allow for a release and provides remedies.”

An uncertain future

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kevin Smith and Glenn Mesa sit behind the dugout as they watch the Salt Lake Bees play the Reno Aces at Smith's Ballpark on Tuesday, April 18, 2023. The Bees intend to leave Salt Lake City at the end of the 2024 season for a new 8,000-seat ballpark in South Jordan's Daybreak.

Mendenhall said she never sensed the city was close to landing a deal with the Miller company.

“It felt that every time we heard an opportunity — or an idea, I should say — from the Miller group about a way that it could work, it vanished almost as quickly as it was shared,” she said. “Nothing was ever seriously on the table from the Miller group to stay.”

On Jan. 17, 2023, the Larry H. Miller Co. announced publicly that the team would leave Salt Lake City for South Jordan’s Daybreak, where the company owns some 1,300 acres and plans to erect an 8,000-seat stadium.

“Our decision to relocate the Salt Lake Bees was never a negotiation,” Starks said in a statement last week. “Rather, we considered a number of options and data, and ran a thorough process. It would be difficult to point to one specific factor leading to our decision and we are confident in our path forward.”

Mendenhall has described the move as a business decision and used the announcement of the team’s departure to push a design competition that she said would help shape the redevelopment of the area.

To make up for the loss, and at the mayor’s urging, the Larry H. & Gail Miller Family Foundation is heading up a fundraising effort to make a $100 million investment in the Ballpark neighborhood.

Mendenhall, meanwhile, has fervently tried to pitch the Bees’ exit — disappointing as it is — as an unprecedented opportunity to reimagine the neighborhood with a development that will create activity year-round, not just during the summer.

The Ballpark neighborhood may yet experience a bright future with unprecedented investment after the Bees turn out the lights at Smith’s Ballpark for the final time, but it likely won’t come with a seventh-inning stretch.

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(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bumble poses for a photo with Mike Lindow as the Salt Lake Bees play the Reno Aces at Smith's Ballpark on Tuesday, April 18, 2023.