Concerns Over Future of Arkansas Travelers Prompt Controversial Shakeup

Concerns Over Future of Arkansas Travelers Prompt Controversial Shakeup
Arkansas Travelers President Russ Meeks: “There are a lot of people that have difficulty with change.” (Michael Pirnique)

Like it or not, change is the name of the game with the Arkansas Travelers.

Not everyone likes it.

In a surprise move, team President Russ Meeks, with the unanimous support of the Travelers’ six-man executive committee, fired popular General Manager Pete Laven and Assistant General Manager David Kay on Nov. 12.

While longtime fans, former employees, team shareholders and even board members are up in arms over the moves, Meeks is continuing to rethink the way the club does business.

“Change is tough and there are a lot of people that have difficulty with change,” Meeks said last week.

In his first on-the-record interview since the ouster of Laven and Kay, Meeks explained his thinking behind the firings and the team’s focus as it enters what is considered a critical time for many minor league franchises.

Arkansas, of the Class AA Texas League, just completed its sixth season in Dickey-Stephens Park and is at a point, Meeks said, when a new ballpark begins to lose its shine and a team must deal with issues ranging from repairs to attendance drop-offs.

“It becomes harder to sell things. It becomes harder to get people there,” Meeks said. “The newness has worn off. It happens to every organization in minor league baseball at every level: A, Double-A and Triple-A.”

Meeks, 63, a lawyer and a member of the Travelers organization since the late 1970s, spoke at length in his office at the Little Rock law firm of Smith Williams & Meeks.

Also present was Frank Thomas, the Travelers’ treasurer and spokesman for the Stephens Inc. investment bank. It was Stephens Inc. CEO Warren Stephens who donated the land for the ballpark and named it for his uncle and father, Witt and Jack Stephens, and for Arkansas baseball greats Bill and Skeeter Dickey.

From concessions to branding to on-field promotions, Meeks said the team will openly explore any and all changes if they are viewed as beneficial to the Travelers’ long-term fortunes.

Chief among Meeks’ concerns is the Texas League All-Star Game slated for Dickey-Stephens Park in 2014. It is a chance for the club and the state to put its best foot forward, he said.

With that in mind, Meeks said, firing Laven and Kay was not a snap decision but the result of a series of overlapping, annual internal reviews and evaluations.

“For the future, we know that we need leadership that looks at changes from a positive, affirmative standpoint and never runs into the issue of ‘we don’t do it that way’ or ‘we haven’t done it that way,’” Meeks said.

But it is the break with the past that has alarmed many longtime employees, former board members and shareholders. Many are concerned there are no real “baseball people” running the operation.

‘It Was a Surprise’

“I’m very disappointed in terms of how this has been handled,” said John Breen, a Travelers shareholder for close to 30 years. “And I don’t feel good about the leadership and the direction of the Travelers at this point in time. I think it’s always been a very well-run and very well-managed baseball operation directed by people who understand minor league baseball and the community here in terms of what it takes to make minor league baseball accessible here.”

Kay, a one-time employee at Ray Winder Field who returned to serve as Dickey-Stephens’ ticket manager, and Laven were respected by long-time fans and employees. The ouster of Laven, general manager since 2007 and a former Texas League Executive of the Year, was especially unexpected.

“I think he was certainly universally popular within the league, both because of his demeanor and cooperativeness,” Texas League President Tom Kayser said. “If he told you something, you could depend on it, and that goes a long way.”

Laven, 42, an Illinois native, first interned with the Travelers in the 1990s. He spent 10 years with other minor league clubs and then returned to the team and became an assistant general manager under longtime GM Bill Valentine in 2004.

Laven was unquestionably Valentine’s top assistant, earning executive of the year honors in 2006 for his role in Ray Winder Field’s final season of operation, in which central Arkansas last hosted the Texas League All-Star Game.

Valentine relinquished his general manager duties to Laven and became executive vice president when the club moved to Dickey-Stephens Park in 2007. The next year, when Valentine semi-retired, Laven became the face of the club much as Valentine had been since taking over in 1976.

“I would say it was a surprise,” said Kayser, Texas League president since 1989. “I don’t think we’ve had — I can’t remember a dismissal of a general manager in the league for as long as I’ve been in the league. We’ve had people leave, but we haven’t had a change like this. So when it occurs it is always a surprise.”

Paul Allen, a former intern and now assistant GM and director of sales for the Travs, is serving as interim general manager. He has earned the chance to be a candidate for the job permanently, Meeks said, while the Travelers also sift through other applicants.

Meeks said he definitely wants someone with experience in baseball.

The Travelers have already hired former intern Drew Williams, a ticket service account executive with the St. Louis Cardinals, to assume Kay’s duties as ticket manager, but Williams will not have the title of assistant general manager. Meeks said that when the vacancies are filled, there will be only one assistant general manager — as opposed to two, Allen and Kay, under Laven.

The team also recently promoted several other interns to sales and community relations positions. The Travelers will also likely have to find replacements for concessions manager, wholesale and various other positions staffed by former Laven employees at Ray Winder Field and Dickey-Stephens Park.

The Travelers, which have operated with 13 permanent employee positions, will probably wind up with 15 to 18, Meeks said. But the staff will still be one of the smallest in the league.

‘Suspicious of the Motives’

Laven and Kay are bound by a severance agreement that prohibits them from speaking to the media. But others have stepped forward to describe Meeks’ actions as a power grab complete with a stacking of the team’s board of directors in Meeks’ favor.

“I’m unhappy; I’m very suspicious of the motives involved,” said former board member Greg Crawford. “I do not think it’s in the best interest of baseball in central Arkansas with the way the operation is going. I believe that everything is being set up to consolidate authority in one person who is very, very good at making it all sound real nice to the board but in fact what he’s saying isn’t true.”

Outcry over the firings has come from longtime employees, fans, board members and shareholders and was given a voice on a fan-operated Facebook page titled “Take Me Out of the Ballpark,” with the criticism directed primarily at Meeks.

As an example, Crawford pointed to his own removal from the board, which had been built up to its maximum 25 then pared down to its current 15 on the recommendations of a nominating committee. Crawford saw the move as an effort to remove those who might oppose Meeks’ decisions. He said he was notified of the decision just before the annual shareholders’ meeting in October.

Meeks, however, said the decisions, which removed from the board several Travelers employees, like Ballpark Superintendent Greg Johnston and Concessions Manager John Evans, were based on recommendations that followed a series of audits and reviews.

Meeks said having employees serving on the board created a potential conflict of interest.

“One of the things that was suggested to us was that employees — from an auditing and accounting standpoint and a potential liability standpoint — should probably not be considered for board positions of active management, active corporate management, that hires and fires employees,” Meeks said.

Meeks continually stressed that the intention of the club’s leadership is to ensure the long-term survival of professional baseball in central Arkansas. His actions and those of the executive committee, Meeks said, are designed to prevent the loss of the team, which happened in 1959 and ultimately led to the formation of the Travelers’ current ownership structure. (See more on the ownership structure here.)

Since 1960 the Travelers have been fan-owned under Arkansas Travelers Inc., the result of a public stock drive that allowed interested parties to purchase shares at $5 each and buy the bankrupt New Orleans franchise and bring it to Ray Winder Field.

The first version of the Travelers, who opened play in 1901, had been sold to a Shreveport interest after years of poor performance and attendance, leaving Ray Winder Field empty in 1959.

The board and executive committee were set up to manage the team’s day-to-day operations, but there has always been a central figure like Valentine or Laven to handle most of the decision-making.

The current executive committee consists of Meeks, Thomas, President Emeritus Bert Parke, Vice Presidents Ben Scroggin and Charles Logan, and Secretary Bob Whisnant.

(Take our poll: Do you agree with changes at the Arkansas Travelers? Vote here.)

No Specific Complaints

Meeks said he was invited aboard in the late 1970s and offered some stock shares, and he later acquired 20 shares from family members, but said he was not a majority shareholder. He assumed the team presidency in 2010.

Insiders have said Meeks was upset that Laven spoke to reporters about the Travelers’ most recent player development contract with the Los Angeles Angels. Others have said Meeks wanted to see more revenue-generating offseason events at Dickey-Stephens Park; still others have said Meeks thought there were too many such events.

In speaking to Arkansas Business, Meeks offered no specific complaint or criticism of Laven’s or Kay’s job performance. Rather, he said, it was a time to be thinking of generally new ways of doing things.

Attendance was 372,475 in 2007, the first year at Dickey-Stephens Park, and it climbed to 377,997 in 2008. Turnout declined for three straight years before a slight uptick to 308,109 in the most recent season.

But attendance, Meeks said, is not the only concern. With the All-Star Game coming into view, everything is on the table as far as changing up the operation, he said.

Meeks said he is open to taking examples from successful league members like Tulsa, which opened a 7,833-seat stadium in 2010 and hosted last year’s All-Star Game, and the Northwest Arkansas Naturals. The Naturals, hosting this year’s game at Arvest Ballpark in Springdale, won the 2012 Bob Freitas award for minor league excellence in the Class AA category.

Meeks said current ballpark staff members have reached out to their counterparts at other teams. 2013 will be used as an evaluation year, and whatever changes are made — whether new logos or outside concession services — will be in place by 2014.

“In 2014, our central Arkansas community, Arkansas Travelers and Dickey-Stephens Park will be the host of the Texas League All-Star Game,” Meeks said. “That is of critical focus to us and to me personally, because this is my home and I’m so excited about showing it off.”

‘A Healthy Franchise’

Whatever the makeup of the front office, the Travelers are a healthy organization. The team has operated in the black and is on its way to paying off a significant debt.

Dickey-Stephens Park was funded by a 1 percent sales tax collected in the city of North Little Rock for two years, and the lease agreement between the Travelers and North Little Rock is for 20 years with two five-year options.

No later than March 31 of each year, the Travelers submit its rental calculations — based on a formula Meeks helped negotiate — and its rent payments to the city of North Little Rock Public Building Authority.

Because the approximately $46 million cost of constructing the ballpark was over budget by about $5.5 million, the Travelers have been paying basic rent plus additional rent to offset the overage.

In 2011, the Travelers paid a basic rent of $490,786 and an equal amount in additional rent. That left a balance of $1.26 million that Meeks expects to be retired over the next two years.

The Travelers will then put the additional rent payments into restricted accounts for future use.

“We do not pay dividends. By the same token we do not borrow money,” Meeks said. “So we will leave this organization financially clean and stable for the next generation of leaders that come in behind us.”

The Travelers may be headed toward a more corporate, buttoned-down way of doing things, but observers say if the club makes no major missteps, Meeks’ vision of long-term stability should come to pass.

“It’s a transition and I’m sure it will take them time to find their feet,” Kayser said. “But it certainly is a healthy franchise. I don’t think that is in any dispute whatsoever.”

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