TRAVERSE CITY — Austin Manuel wasn't sure what to expect.
Rumors swirled around the future of his employer, the Traverse City Beach Bums, for months.
"We heard the same rumors, but it was nothing that was confirmed until later on," Manuel said. "We were focused on doing what we could do."
Manuel sat in attendance Wednesday for a press conference announcing the sale of Wuerfel Park to Traverse City Baseball LLC, a group headed by West Michigan Whitecaps CEO Joe Chamberlin.
Manuel served as an account executive with the Traverse City Beach Bums of the Frontier League, a team that existed from 2006 until the new ownership decided to forego participation in the Frontier League in favor of the Northwoods League, a college wood-bat league that plays a 70-game summer schedule that begins in late May.
"We're excited for this new turn and to see what the Northwoods League brings to Traverse City," said Manuel, 23, who is one of two employees retained, along with director of special events and promotions Britani Eaton. "I think it'll definitely be exciting baseball, and an exciting turn for baseball up here in general."
The new ownership plans other entertainment options at the 4,200-capacity ballpark, including concerts, a beer festival and hosting high school baseball, soccer and football games on the park's artificial turf.
Doug Luciani of the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce said the Blair Township stadium is a "vastly underutilized facility" and that the new owners will make it a "year-round asset."
The 22-team Northwoods League added two franchises this offseason, including Traverse City and the Kokomo (Indiana) Jackrabbits. A third addition, the St. Croix (Hudson, Wisconsin) River Hounds, may not play in 2019 as the franchise converts a former dog-racing track into a baseball facility.
The NWL fields nine teams in Wisconsin, five in Minnesota, three in Michigan and one each in Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, North Dakota and Ontario. Two other former Frontier teams currently reside in the Northwoods League — Kalamazoo and Rockford.
Dan Hasty, a former Beach Bums director of broadcasting who spent the last four years with the Whitecaps, said Traverse City baseball fans should expect a lot from the new ownership.
"These guys are first-class," Hasty said. "They do everything exceptionally well. I think the people of Traverse City are going to enjoy the effect they have on baseball there."
Chamberlin said Traverse City's non-affiliated status will allow the franchise to "push the envelope" with promotions and marketing beyond what they've done in Grand Rapids with the Detroit Tigers' Class A ball club. He added they plan to expand the ballpark's food offerings.
Northwoods League president Gary Hoover and chairman Dick Radatz Jr. both have local connections, owning homes in Williamsburg. Chamberlin owns a cottage in Omena.
"A stadium like this is an enormous advantage," Hoover said. "There's unconstrained potential here. I've been really looking forward to this day."
Chamberlin declined to disclose the Wuerfel Park purchase price, but Radatz said a Northwoods League team carries a $1 million franchise fee in addition to the cost of securing a stadium.
"We're not going to share a number," Chamberlin said, "but when you look at this facility, I will say it was a significant effort made by our group to make the investment to get in here. But everybody felt really good about it and everybody thinks this place has a ton of potential."
Chamberlin said he plans to land a corporate stadium naming rights deal similar to the Whitecaps' FifthThird Ballpark. He added the team will have 10 full-time employees in addition to seasonal staff during the baseball season and for other events.
A 2009 study by the city of LaCrosse, Wisconsin found $1.1-1.3 million annually in NWL-related spending, plus $500,000 in team spending.
"We're bringing 25 years of tweaking and learning and knowing how to make minor-league and amateur baseball really fun and exciting," Chamberlin said. "Really putting the kind of show together that gets groups and families coming out to a game and having a good time. I'd say 85 percent of the people who come to a Whitecaps game don't know the score when they leave. That's OK with us, because they still had a blast there."
Chamberlin said Beach Bums skipper Dan Rohn took his name out of the running for the new team's field manager position.
"We look forward to having him involved in any capacity he wants to be involved in," Chamberlin said, "but he let us down easy in terms of the manager spot."
Rohn, who has managed professional baseball teams since 1991 and spent the last five seasons guiding Traverse City, is working to find last year's Beach Bums players new places to play in independent minor-league baseball, as they won't be eligible to play in the NWL because of amateurism rules. Rohn said "we'll figure out" how he can help the new franchise.
Top collegiate players pay $300 per season for a spot on NWL teams. Radatz said this is done to avoid labor relations problems, and signifies that the players are not employees of the teams.
A contest to name the new team runs through Oct. 15. Entries can be submitted at www.traversecitybaseball.com, the club's temporary website until a team name is selected.
Season ticket packages go on sale in several weeks, and fans can put down a $50 deposit for a priority waiting list spot.