As baseball advances in Charlotte, Jerry Reese retreats

04/12/2014 3:40 PM

04/13/2014 2:13 PM

Every good story needs a villain, and in the long saga of bringing baseball to uptown, Jerry Reese played the part.

Beginning in 2007, Reese filed a series of eight lawsuits aimed at blocking the land swap that eventually yielded BB&T BallPark, which opened this weekend to sell-out crowds.

Bruised and beat-up from his crusade to bring a major league park to Charlotte, Reese is planning to leave town and do businesses elsewhere.

“I want to leave Charlotte and Mecklenburg as soon as possible. Charlotte’s really not the place to do what I want to do. Scripture says you shake the dirt off your feet and move on.”

Reese has also encouraged his oldest son to leave Charlotte. “I don’t want my grandsons to grow up here either.”

It’s not sour grapes, says Reese.

Pursuing a baseball dream

Reese, 62, grew up in Catawba County. His father told him he could pick only two sports, so at Fred T. Foard High School in Newton, Reese played basketball and football, becoming captain of both teams. At UNC Chapel Hill, he was a Phi Beta Kappa and graduated with honors from its law school in 1977.

He came straight to Charlotte, and started as a real estate attorney – what he calls a “dirt lawyer” – in one of the city’s three skyscrapers of the era, the NCNB Plaza.

About a decade ago, Reese did a detailed study that concluded the region had reached a population density that would support a major league team. He started talking to the Florida Marlins while the team was looking for a new stadium in Miami. After they got one, he started talking to another team possibly interested in relocating. He won’t identify the team, but he says he’s still courting them.

Reese wanted a stadium in the old Brooklyn neighborhood in Second Ward, which he believed could spur 100-acres plus of retail, housing and development around it. He kept fighting for it and filing lawsuits. He faced considerable opposition.

“Often it was 10-1 in the courtroom – the county spared no expense in fighting me,” Reese says. He lost four of his cases on the appellate level.

Looking back, ahead

Reese says it all worked out for the best. Uptown would have been a bad location, he now believes. A site near the Charlotte Motor Speedway, closer to the center of the regional population base, would have been better. Still may be, he says.

He thinks demographic change has made Charlotte more of an NBA and NFL town. People moving here aren’t primarily baseball fans. You have to look at the greater region, a 150-mile radius, a footprint that would include Raleigh, Greensboro, Columbia and Asheville.

“I look at this from a reasoned, unemotional market analysis. I once thought of uptown Charlotte for a stadium and have come to the conclusion that my thinking is wrong or the city has changed. I don’t think small, but I think practical.”

An expensive battle

Reese estimates the fight cost him about $1 million in his own expenses and business he had to turn down. Plus, there’s the cost of playing the villain.

“I’ve been criticized from the pulpit of Myers Park Methodist Church in my presence. From the dais of the government center. And the pages of The Charlotte Observer, by numerous contributors. You have to have thick skin and be true to your calling.”

And he still feels the calling. He calls himself the city’s “No. 1 baseball fan.” He says he wakes up each morning with renewed passion for bringing major league baseball to the Carolinas, just not Charlotte. Charlotte got what it deserved in minor league baseball, he says, a decision it will have to live with for a long time.

“Not having a major league franchise in the Carolinas is comparable to not having an NFL franchise in Los Angeles.”

About Mark Washburn

Mark Washburn

@washburnchobs

Mark Washburn writes television and radio commentary for The Charlotte Observer.

Email Mark at mwashburn@charlotteobserver.com or call him at 704-358-5007

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