Andrew T. Berlin, chairman and chief executive officer of Chicago-based Berlin Packaging and a limited partner in the Chicago White Sox, is prepared to pay an undisclosed amount of cash to purchase the Silver Hawks from Joe Kernan and a group of some 50 individual investors.
The deal is still subject to approval from the Midwest League and various other entities.
The former mayor and governor led a group that purchased the team six years ago to ensure it remained in town.
"It never turned a profit. No one has gotten a dividend. Nobody is going to be made whole on the original investment they made," said Kernan.
Though there were offers along the way to purchase the team and relocate it to a different city, the ownership group succeeded in keeping the team here, Kernan said.
"The former owner had a deal with someone who was going to move the team to Marion,Ill.," Kernan said. "Thankfully, that deal fell through. South Bend would be a very different place if we lost it."
However, the organization never had the money to properly market and build and promote the product, Kernan said. "We had to worry too much about meeting our debt obligations and making payroll," he explained.
As a result, average attendance slipped to about 1,600, fourth from the bottom in the 16-team Midwest League.
But all that could change under new ownership.
Instead of having to watch every dollar, Berlin plans to invest in the family-entertainment product to make it successful and profitable. "We want to break records in the Midwest League," he said.
Though that will take some doing since top teams in the league all average well above 5,000 in attendance, Berlin will bring in professional management to oversee the organization, and he sees a need to possibly go back to city leaders to ask for a small amount of funds for additional improvements.
Berlin said the $8 million spent to overhaul Coveleski Stadium and the clearing of land around the site present an excellent opportunity that could serve as a cornerstone of downtown economic redevelopment efforts.
"The Cove area is ripe for development," said Berlin, adding he will sign a 20-year lease to ensure his commitment to the city.
He sees sports bars and even housing springing up around the stadium, which he believes needs to focus on "marketing, promotions, advertising and improving the ballpark experience."
Though Berlin describes himself as a baseball romantic who grew up watching White Sox games and was interested enough to buy into the team, he's also a businessman who has performed market research and studied the demographics.
"South Bend seems like a smaller version of Chicago with a diverse population and lots of interest in sports," he said, adding that his parents also have a home in Lakeside so the visits to South Bend won't actually be too far out of the way.
Berlin hired Ripken Design to look over Coveleski this summer.
Though Ripken Design was impressed overall by the stadium, the design and consulting firm felt there was room for improvement when it comes to aesthetics, functionality and the fan experience.
"It needs to be a destination for families and couples with good food and entertainment," Berlin explained.
Despite his connections with the White Sox, Berlin said that Sox organization has a "very efficient" minor league organization in the Southeast. He's very happy with the prospect of being a partner with the Diamondbacks, which also is an excellent organization.
Though details are still being worked out, Kernan likely will remain with the organization at least through the transition.
"We need to dispel any negative perceptions with the community," said Berlin. "We need to build a product so that if they will try us once, they'll want to return."Staff writer Ed Semmler:esemmler @sbtinfo.com574-235-6466