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Triad baseball stadium referendum looking like bang-bang play at plate
by Associated Press Writer Paul Nowell

WINSTON-SALEM (May 2, 1998 - 11:13 EDT) -- If this were a baseball game, the bases would be loaded and the score tied in the ninth as Triad voters decide whether to tax themselves to help build a major league ballpark.

With next Tuesday's referendum in Guilford and Forsyth counties approaching, neither side is predicting victory or defeat.

"It's getting close to the bottom of the ninth," said Walt Klein, the leader of the Vote Yes campaign. "We are hoping to get our third batter up with a 3-2 count and a chance to take another swing."

On the other side, Ken Conrad of Citizens Against Unfair Taxes said the vote was too close to call.

"It's neck-and-neck," he said, dismissing polls that suggested his camp holds an edge. "The only poll that counts is the exit poll."

Voters in the two Triad counties will decide Tuesday whether to impose a 1 percent prepared-foods tax on all meals served in restaurants and a 50-cent tax on all baseball tickets.

The taxes would pay two-thirds of the $210 million cost to build the stadium if the ownership group led by Hickory businessman Don Beaver succeeds in buying and relocating the Minnesota Twins.

"They say we have a good chance," Beaver said in an interview last week at Knights Castle in Fort Mill, S.C., home to one of his minor league clubs, the Charlotte Knights. "If we can get enough voters out to the polls, this thing will pass."

Despite vocal opposition from Conrad's organization and critics such as the North Carolina Restaurant Association, Beaver and Klein said they would have done nothing different in the campaign.

"If it fails, it's going to be a sad day for that part of North Carolina," Beaver said as he watched a local college team taking batting practice on the Knights field. "This is their one chance to do something big down there."

Cameron McRae, immediate past chairman of the restaurant association and principal owner of the Kinston Indians minor league baseball team, said any tax on food was not a fair way to raise money to build the ballpark.

"I love baseball and I definitely am in favor of bringing baseball to North Carolina, but unfortunately I'm also opposed to any industry-specific tax," he said. "To us, it's a meals tax. I just don't think it's right.

"It singles out a large but fragmented industry with a lot of small, independent owners," McRae said. "We can't go toe to toe fund raising.'

Financial disclosure statements show Vote Yes for Major League Baseball has raised 28 times the amount of money collected by their opponents. The group has raised more than $716,000.

The group has sufficient cash on hand for last-minute radio and television advertising along with direct mail, Klein said.

Meanwhile, Citizens Against Unfair Taxes reported that it has raised about $26,000.

Klein, who ran the successful effort to convince the public to help finance a major league stadium in Denver, said referendums take a lot of money to win.

When the campaign began, local polls showed opponents outnumbered supporters by a 3-to-1 margin. Later, polls showed that the margin had shrunk to about 2-1 against.

A poll taken in the final week of the campaign showed the race had tightened. The poll of 438 likely voters in the referendum, conducted for the Winston-Salem Journal by Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research Inc., found that 50 percent of voters in the two counties opposed the tax while 43 percent supported the proposal.

The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.

Both sides appeal to voters' emotions.

Beaver paints a pastoral picture, talking about North Carolina's strong links to the history of baseball. To him, the referendum comes down to whether voters are willing to ante up to bring major league baseball to the Tar Heel state.

"Baseball is the affordable sport," Beaver said. "It's something everybody can enjoy and there's a big pent-up demand in North Carolina for pro ball."

To Conrad, "It's a food tax. I have a problem with any kind of food tax. We need to take them all away."