Fish could have new owner before season

The city of Bowling Green, Ky., expects the Columbus Catfish to fill an as yet non-existent stadium for the 2009 South Atlantic League season, but the prospective new owner of the franchise said it's premature to confirm a change in location.

Art Solomon, the investor who has exercised an option to purchase the Catfish from David Heller, said Wednesday that he planned to visit Columbus soon and would come here with an open mind.

When asked whether there might be any scenario that would keep the Catfish at Golden Park beyond the 2008 season, Solomon said it's too early to tell.

“Honestly, I don't know the answer,'' said Solomon, the president and CEO of DSF Group, a Boston-based real estate a finance company. “We don't know Columbus well enough yet. We will start coming down to Columbus in a couple weeks. I just don't know right now.''

Solomon, who owns the Double-A New Hampshire Fisher Cats of the Eastern League, said he anticipates having a Control Interest Transfer filed with the South Atlantic League next week.

Once that happens, his ownership application will face a review and approval process with the South Atlantic League and Minor League Baseball.

While the review process does not have a defined timetable, Solomon said he hopes to take ownership of the Catfish before the 2008 season begins.

Solomon said he would serve as the majority owner of the franchise and that Rick Brenner, the president and chief executive officer of DSF Sports & Entertainment, would be the minority owner.

“We're very active owners who really work hard with the relationships with the community,'' Solomon said. “That's what our track record has been.''

The question now is where those community relationships will be built over the long term. Solomon's lease agreement with the city of Bowling Green stipulates that a South Atlantic League team will be the tenant for a proposed 4,000-seat ballpark and will begin play there in 2009. The agreement calls for Solomon to own the team for at least 20 years.

Jim Ferguson, the director of media relations for Minor League Baseball, said earlier this week that a transfer of ownership would have to occur before a request for relocation could be considered. A relocation request would also be subject to approval from the South Atlantic League and Minor League Baseball.

“The only one who can apply to move a team is the owner of a team,'' Ferguson said. “If the process is going to be that the new owner wants to move the team, he has to acquire the team before he can do that.''

Solomon said he expressed interest in acquiring the Catfish after hearing Heller wanted to sell the franchise.

“I'm someone who is very passionate about baseball and I had been told by some mutual friends that the Catfish might be available,'' Solomon said. “Since it was my interest to acquire another team, it was really more the opportunity.''

Last week, Bowling Green officials approved $25 million in bonds to kick-start a downtown development project that includes a new ballpark. With a stadium construction budget of $23 million, the ballpark represents a small portion of the $251 million development plan.

The Catfish's lease with the City of Columbus expires on Sept. 30. Columbus City Manager Isiah Hugley said Wednesday that his office had received no communication from the Catfish regarding the possibility of a sale.

“If the sale occurs, we will be open to negotiating transferring the (Golden Park) contract to a new owner,'' Hugley wrote in an e-mail to the Ledger-Enquirer.

If the Catfish vacate Golden Park after the 2008 season, another league may express interest in placing a team there.

The South Coast League of Professional Baseball, an independent professional league with headquarters in Conyers, Ga., could be waiting in the wings. Macon and Albany, which both lost South Atlantic League franchises, are entering their second seasons of membership in the South Coast League.

“We hope that if the day comes that affiliated baseball leaves town, the South Coast League would get the first opportunity to fill that vacancy,'' J.D. Hardin the chief development officer for the South Coast League, wrote in an e-mail to the Ledger-Enquirer.