Werner Park on Tuesday evening should be abuzz with the excitement of Opening Night: hot dogs and popcorn, the crack of a well-timed hit and the euphoric feeling that summer is around the corner.
Instead, the home of the Storm Chasers minor league baseball team will sit quiet, another reminder that the novel coronavirus has shut down large parts of life.
And like many businesses, the team is feeling the economic squeeze, at one point expressing concern about its ability to make payments to Sarpy County for the use of its ballpark.
Without revenue from games and the fans who attend them, some team employees have been laid off and all remaining staff members have had their salaries or hours cut.
The organization leases Werner Park from Sarpy County, which spent some $29 million to build the ballpark. To do so, the county issued bonds, which are projected to be paid off in 2035.
A letter sent this month to the county from Martie Cordaro, the Chasers’ president, indicated that the team was making contingency plans because of lost revenue. The letter, dated April 3, requested a delay in two payments: a $238,230 semiannual lease payment due June 1, and a $40,000 payment due April 1 for a scoreboard that was installed in 2015. An $11,000 payment related to stadium improvements for Omaha’s new professional soccer team also was due April 1.
But delaying the lease payment probably won’t be necessary. The Storm Chasers have been approved for a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan that helps small businesses pay for expenses like employee pay, rent and utility bills, Cordaro said. The county has given the team until May 7 to make the payments that were due April 1.
The team is applying for other federal money, too. Dan Hoins, Sarpy County’s administrator, said the organization has indicated that it has the capacity to make upcoming payments even without federal funding.
“At this point, I don’t anticipate it being a problem,” Hoins said. “They’ll either pay it with their funds, or they’ll pay it with a disaster loan.”
The pandemic struck during a period when baseball teams spend a lot of money to prepare for the season ahead — expenses typically increase in February and taper off in October. Purchases like items for promotional giveaways, staff T-shirts and gifts for clients are usually bought in February and March, Cordaro said. The team begins ramping up its seasonal staffing in mid-January.
Cordaro said the pandemic has affected every Storm Chasers staff member as well as every employee of Union Omaha, the USL League One soccer team that was slated to play its inaugural season this spring.
Of the roughly 30 Storm Chasers staff members, six were laid off, as well six of 15 Union Omaha employees, said Cordaro, who is also president of the soccer team. All remaining staff members have had their salaries or hours reduced. The team intends to bring back its staffing in full once it knows when play can resume.
All minor league baseball teams have been affected by the coronavirus. The Memphis Redbirds and their sister USL Championship League team announced layoffs and furloughs last month, according to Ballpark Digest. The Storm Chasers would have started their season on the road against Memphis last Thursday.
It isn’t clear when professional sports will return. That timeline will depend in part on how well people follow social distancing guidelines. Cordaro said he’s hopeful that it’s soon.
“We don’t have a specific target as to when that may or may not be,” he said. “We’re in a waiting period, just like everyone else in the country is right now.”
In the meantime, the Storm Chasers have been planning fun, safe events. To commemorate Opening Night, fans were able to preorder a box of ballpark food to be picked up Tuesday. On Saturday, people can park their vehicles at Werner Park to catch a free 8:30 p.m. fireworks show.
Hoins said the Storm Chasers have been a good partner to the county over the last decade. “They’ve invested in us, and we’ve invested in them.”
An earlier version of this article listed Martie Cordaro's title incorrectly. This version has been corrected.