The Money Pitch

Major-League Donation Follows Mets Minor-League Deal

Two months after helping win approval of a controversial new stadium in Coney Island for a minor-league baseball team owned by the Mets, City Council member Herb Berman received over $50,000 in campaign contributions from team owners and associates.

The contributions were raised by Jeffrey Wilpon, son of Mets co-owner Fred Wilpon, on June 2, records show. Berman received checks of $4500—the maximum allowed under city campaign Berman received checks of $4500—the maximum allowed under city campaign finance rules—from Jeffrey and Fred Wilpon, two other relatives of the Wilpons, and three executives in Wilpon's real estate firm, Sterling Equities. Other family members gave lesser amounts.

All told, Berman received $54,000 from the Wilpons and their associates, accounting for more than 10 percent of the $504,000 collected thus far by the Brooklyn Democrat who is running for city comptroller next year.

Councilmember Herb Berman: A $54,000 approval rating from Mets owners
photo: Fred W. McDarrah
Councilmember Herb Berman: A $54,000 approval rating from Mets owners

The Mets said the gifts followed a fundraising appeal from Berman's campaign.

"The Wilpons have a history of giving support to candidates for public office and Herb is someone whom they consider a very strong candidate for comptroller," said Mets spokesman Ethan Geto.

In a City Hall-backed deal that was angrily opposed by Brooklyn borough president Howard Golden, the city has pledged to spend at least $31 million for a new 6500-seat ballpark for a minor-league team owned by the Mets. The stadium is slated for the same site, the former Steeplechase Park, long coveted by Golden for an amateur sports arena.

With Berman pushing hard for approval, the stadium plan, along with $30 million for new playgrounds and local improvements to the boardwalk, passed the council by a vote of 48-1 on April 12. The package included an additional $30 million in the city's capital budget for a future amateur sports facility nearby.

Berman said that he met twice with Jeffrey Wilpon in the days prior to the vote to get a Mets commitment to hold community events at the stadium.

"Apparently Jeff recognizes I am a competent person and would make a good comptroller," said Berman.

Economic terms of the deal were hatched last year between the Mets and the Giuliani administration. The city agreed to pay all construction costs and the team to pay at least $100,000 a year in rent, depending on attendance. The Mets also get 50 percent of any naming rights for the ballpark as well as all parking and concessions revenue.

Critics argued that the city would get little bang for its buck since the Mets' new team is part of the lower-level Class A New York-Penn League and will play just 38 games at the park per season.

At a council hearing on April 4, Miles Wolff, commissioner of the independent Northern League and former owner of the legendary Durham Bulls team, testified that other professional ball clubs, playing at a higher level of skill than the Mets' team, would be eager to bid on the site. "The Mets are getting one of the great deals of all time," Wolff told the Voice. "They are paying nothing and getting a $30 million stadium."

Jonathan Fleisig, a New York-based commodities trader who holds a Northern League franchise, said he is now negotiating to build a new stadium for his team in Hartford, Connecticut, and has agreed to pay $2 million of the construction costs and $350,000 per season in rent.

"That is what the market bears in Hartford," said Fleisig. "If it was in Brooklyn, it would be much more. In Coney Island, we are talking about a gold mine."

Berman, who represents Canarsie and Mill Basin, said he became involved in negotiations at the request of business leaders who feared Golden's opposition could kill the stadium deal.

"Listen, for 25 years not a fucking thing has happened to Coney Island," said Berman. "I grew up there and the thing has been dead for years. This was an opportunity for it to come alive."

 
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