This is a clear-cut case of better late than never, simply because never was never really an option.
The City of Wilmington officially gave the green light to its deal with Salesianum School to refurbish Baynard Stadium when City Council approved it in a meeting on Thursday night. Twelve of the 13 council members voted for the agreement, with one abstaining.
In case you came in late, City Council initially approved the deal with Salesianum back in 2016, but then factions in council questioned the agreement, mainly because they felt Sallies was getting too many concessions.
So, Salesianum backed out and the city tried to find another partner with which to strike a deal, but nobody else stepped up. Perhaps it was inevitable that the Salesianum proposal would eventually be OK’d, but considering the slippery slope that is the world of politics, nothing was certain.
More than anything, it was the persistence (the school’s motto is Tenui Nec Dimittam – I have taken hold and will not let go) and faith of one man – Salesianum president Brendan Kennealey – that made this all happen.
“He has been masterful in his strategy, communications, patience and simply brilliant in managing delicate, vital relationships in getting this done,” said Mark L. Reardon, Salesianum’s attorney and a school graduate.
Kennealey, in turn, gave credit to Reardon and fellow attorney Sara Toner, as well as “good leadership’’ from Wilmington mayor Mike Purzycki and the members of City Council.
It also didn’t hurt that nobody else stepped up with a plan that was even close to Salesianum’s – or, for that matter, any plan at all. The school will raise between $15-$20 million and the agreement gives Salesianum a 50-year lease, with an option for another 50 one-year extensions. And, like in the previous agreement, all of the schools and organizations that used Baynard Stadium in the past will be able to use it in the future at no additional cost.
So, this long and winding road finally ends after two years.
“I like to think I’m an optimistic person, but, of course, I had serious doubts,” Kennealey said of the deal with the city. “I think, in general, people see this overwhelmingly as a very, very good deal for everybody involved. It was a small group of people who were very vocal who derailed this initially. That they were allowed to derail it, I think, is a failure of the system, but I think the overwhelmingly positive nature of this opportunity is what won the day.”
Opponents pointed out that Salesianum got a lot of perks from it, including stadium naming rights. But that’s the nature of a private-public partnership – everybody gains something.
Kennealey said the failure of the initial effort to pass City Council was as frustrating as anything he’s dealt with in his career, and this is a guy who negotiated with local governments in Rwanda when he was chairman of a non-profit that raised more than $400,000 for organizations dedicated to youth groups in the war-torn African nation.
“There’s no question that it was [frustrating], on a number of fronts,” he said of the Baynard Stadium deal. “One was having to go back to the donors and explain what happened and see how it played out. That was first.
“Also, because we’ve been in the city for more than 100 years and were trying to do something good in the city, and the public was watching and potential investors, potential philanthropists, they were all watching the city, and to see something like this turned away, which was a gift – it’s going to be close to $20 million and to be turned away, to me that was frustrating. How is the city ever going to revitalize itself if that’s the message to anyone who has any interest in investing in this place?
“I’ve done a number of things in my career where I had to navigate complicated stuff that involved politics and communities and things like that,” Kennealey added, “but nothing that was on par with this.”
The first thing Kennealey had to do was get back in touch with his initial investors and co-sponsors and other rich friends – he had 11 lined up at first – and get them back on board. And he discovered that many of them were hesitant to get involved again until they knew that the agreement was finalized.
“They are wonderful, supportive people who want to support Salesianum and support the city, but given what happened, I don’t blame them one bit,” Kennealey said. “I don’t think they were enthusiastic after what happened.
“And that’s the lesson that people are learning. I think that is the greatest fear. We’re talking about deal for a stadium, which is sort of a minor thing relative to the complex challenges the city is facing. That was my greatest worry — what is the message to the outside community about Wilmington’s actual desire to revitalize?”
In the end, persistence and patience won the day and Kennealey believes that will be the legacy of Salesianum’s landmark deal with the City of Wilmington.
“Absolutely,” he said. “I’m very optimistic on that front, that the message that will come out of this will be, ‘Yeah, there were some bumps on the road, but they got it right in the end and that’s what matters.’ And that will carry the day.”