Fielders lawsuit: We were duped by Zion officials, developer
The parent company of the Lake County Fielders has sued the City of Zion, claiming Mayor Lane Harrison and others lured the minor league baseball team to play a second season in a temporary ballpark by misleading team ownership about their intention to build a permanent stadium.
Grand Slam Sports and Entertainment, headed by Richard Ehrenreich, contends in the suit Zion went as far as having a construction fence built to make it look like work would start on a permanent ballpark this year, but no work was done.
Grand Slam Sports filed the lawsuit against the city, Harrison and a former economic development chief. The suit asks for up to $10.7 million in damages.
Harrison did not return calls, nor did Zion City Attorney Scott Puma.
Also named in the suit is Richard Delisle, the owner of the 23 acres where Zion placed the publicly financed temporary stadium and pledged to build the permanent one. The land, at Green Bay Road and Route 173, is zoned commercial and named Green Bay Crossings, but so far the only commercial building on the site is a drugstore.
Grand Slam Sports alleges fraud and breach of contract in the complaint filed Tuesday in Lake County circuit court.
"The Fielders are effectively at a standstill of operations," the lawsuit states, "and cannot function on a reasonably sound financial basis in 2012 absent construction of the stadium."
In the lawsuit, Grand Slam Sports contends the Fielders were duped into playing in 2011 to benefit Delisle. Green Bay Crossings had a $7.2 million mortgage and little income in 2010, according to the lawsuit. Zion leased the land in 2010 and 2011 for the makeshift ballpark, which the city then rented to the Fielders.
Ehrenreich says the Fielders sustained a $700,000 loss in their first season, which he blames on the lack of a professional stadium. The Fielders returned for their second season in the North American Baseball League only because they believed a permanent facility would be "substantially completed," the suit contends.
"Had (Grand Slam Sports) known the true facts of the status of stadium construction, they would not have fielded a Fielders team in 2011," the lawsuit says.
Former Zion economic development director J. Delaine Rogers assured the Fielders in a letter last March the city would borrow $7.5 million for stadium construction this year, the suit says. The loan never was pursued and Rogers quit her Zion job in May to become managing director of a hotel Delisle owns at the city's Market Square downtown development.
The Fielders started the season with a six-week road trip in May.
But as it became apparent there was no realistic chance for a retail project to accompany a ballpark as previously promoted by the city, the suit claims, Harrison, Rogers and Delisle hatched a plan.
The suit accuses Harrison, Rogers and Delisle of working on potential land swaps with owners of nearby parcels to relieve Green Bay Crossings of debt. They needed the Fielders back in a temporary stadium to accomplish the goal, court documents state.
"Failure of the Fielders to field a team for the 2011 season at the Route 173 site would negatively impact, and potentially collapse, any plans to assist (Green Bay Crossings) while creating extensive negative publicity for the city, Harrison and Delisle," says the suit.
Grand Slam Sports also claims Zion officials and Delisle began attacking the reputation of Ehrenreich's company with the intent of recruiting another independent baseball team "with fresh financial capital."
Harrison, Rogers and Delisle did not return messages seeking comment.
At the time plans for a minor league team in Zion were first announced, Ehrenreich was also the owner of the now-defunct Schaumburg Flyers, which played in the Northern League. He announced his intention to sell the Flyers to concentrate on the Fielders.
At first, the Zion minor league team was slated to play on land at Trumpet Park that the city was supposed to buy from the North Shore Sanitary District. Zion officials announced a shift south to Delisle's Green Bay Crossings for the Fielders' 2010 inaugural campaign.
Attorney Stephen Boulton, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of Grand Slam Sports, said his client got caught up in small-city politics connected to the proposed stadium.
"We walked into a ruse that was designed to help friends of the government," Boulton said.
Zion, meanwhile, contends the Fielders owe the city $340,000 in back rent for temporary stadium use in 2010 and 2011. Soon after some players and coaches claimed in July they had not been paid all they were owed, the city revealed it was seeking back rent from the Fielders.
Ehrenreich contends he refused to pay the rent because Zion didn't build the permanent ballpark as promised this year.
What did get built on the site are professional stadium lights, a professional playing field, dugouts and a parking area. The money for that came from a $1.3 million state grant.
Zion's temporary stadium had an estimated 4,500 mobile seats this year. The seats were removed shortly after the Fielders concluded their home season against a semiprofessional squad from Kenosha.
Boulton said Ehrenreich always made it clear to Zion officials that a quality stadium was necessary for the Fielders to become financially successful.
Meanwhile, earlier this month Ehrenreich filed a breach-of-contract and fraud lawsuit in Cook County circuit court against the investors who pursued buying the Schaumburg Flyers in 2010.
When he began putting the Fielders together, Ehrenreich said he intended to sell the Schaumburg Flyers, to raise capital for the Flyers and help repay overdue rent and other fees to the village of Schaumburg and Schaumburg Park District, which co-own the stadium.
Ehrenreich never completed a sale, and the Flyers were evicted from Schaumburg's baseball stadium in February.
The Cook County suit argues that the potential investors led Flyers ownership to bypass other interested parties in negotiations that led to an asset purchase agreement for $2.73 million signed by both parties on June 18, 2010.
At the time the Flyers were evicted, a court order stated that the Flyers still owed $551,828.92 to Schaumburg and the Schaumburg Park District. Ehrenreich has said the Schaumburg Flyers have no assets and will not be able to pay the debt.
• Daily Herald Staff Writer Eric Peterson contributed to this report.