Two years after the Wheat City Whiskey Jacks made their debut, some local business owners are finding it difficult to get paid money the club owes them.
The Expedition League baseball club arrived in Brandon as an expansion team in 2019 with overwhelming optimism. The wood-bat, college summer league featuring players from junior college to NCAA Division I ranks would be the highest-calibre ball in town since the Manitoba Senior Baseball League folded in 2017.
Brandon and the ball club appeared to be a terrific pairing. But it didn’t take long, business owners say, before unpaid bills began to sour the relationship with Steve Wagner, owner of both the league and the Whiskey Jacks.
Brandon Source for Sports co-owner Joel Whiteside said the Whiskey Jacks still owe nearly $7,000 for the pants, belts, three sets of uniforms and warmup shirts they ordered ahead of the inaugural season. The original total was just north of $17,000 after knocking off $2,500 in a sponsorship agreement.
"We met with them early on when they first came to Brandon. Steve Wagner came in personally and met with us, talked to us about building a relationship," said Whiteside.
"… This was something exciting for us. Being in the sports industry, we are more than happy to see something like that come to Brandon and thought it was a great thing for the city."
The owners attended numerous games and encouraged staff and friends to do the same. Whiteside actually billeted one of the players, and took care of Whiskey Jacks players coming in for their own equipment and custom orders.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the team wasn’t able to play in 2020 and is operating out of Grand Forks, N.D., in 2021 with new — theoretically temporary — business and sponsorship partners.
Whiteside said Source for Sports received its first of four payments from the team in September 2019, well after the entire 64-game season ended. The most recent was nearly six months ago.
"Each payment less than the last, essentially," Whiteside said. "… How this turned out is very frustrating and disappointing for us. For us looking back now, it’s really unfortunate because we were so excited."
Brandon Source for Sports broke its silence publicly on Facebook and Instagram Thursday when the Whiskey Jacks shared a photo in new uniforms with "Grand Forks" across the chest, though the official name is still "Wheat City." Grand Forks is set to receive an expansion team in 2022, according to Wagner.
Travis Gouldie, one of the four Source for Sports co-owners, added the long, drawn-out process is frustrating.
"It’s not like there hasn’t been any contact. We’ve tried to contact (Wagner) many, many, many times and he gets back to you one out of 10 times," Gouldie said. "It’s just frustrating that we went into it in good faith and haven’t even been able to come out of it evened up."
That sentiment certainly echoes through the Brandon business community. The lack of contact with the owner, who lives in the United States and has a Minnesota cellphone number, isn’t lost on Prairie Coach Tours owner Niel Henry.
"The fact that he wasn’t here, he’s south of the border, he’s hard to get a hold of, now I believe it was by design," said Henry, who was approached by the team in the winter before the 2019 campaign.
It was a great opportunity, on paper. The bus service is usually quieter during the summer months, so it offered a chance to keep another bus on the road and have more work for drivers.
Henry said he sat down with Wagner and they agreed to terms, but the process of putting pen to paper wasn’t complete.
"There was some draft (contracts), but he never did get around to signing the proper one, and now I know why," Henry said.
Henry said he received a few payments from Wagner after insisting he hold up his end of the deal. However, $20,000 — more than half of the total — is still outstanding.
"It was very sad because it would have been great to have a ball team back in Brandon. But it brings back shades of the guy that came along to start the Brandon (Grey Owls). They come in with no money, or no money they’ll use. They rely on credit and when the fans don’t flock to the stands the first game, they just kind of back off instead of promoting," Henry said, adding he hired an American collection agency to pursue Wagner.
"It probably won’t come to anything, but I just hope it aggravates him."
The problems with the Whiskey Jacks extend outside the Brandon perimeter. Canfire Pyrotechnics Ltd., from Sundown, which is about 70 kilometres southeast of Steinbach, has taken legal action against Wagner and the club.
Canfire owner and president Peter Palmer filed a small claim for $5,630, the outstanding total for five of the six post-game fireworks shows the company shot. Palmer said he was paid for one show, a year and a half after it took place.
"I told Steve Wagner, ‘I’m not writing this off as bad debt, and this is the second year in a row at the end of the year you’re at the number one, top of my list for receivables. You’re at the top, you owe money, we provided goods and services and you have to pay for them,’" Palmer said.
"… Now we’re going on two years."
Canfire’s entry-level shows cost $2,000 then, but Palmer offered a substantial discount.
"This was not a money maker for us," Palmer said. "That’s the issue that’s really at stake here. We had crews volunteer, we also had to do $5-million insurance, there’s a lot that we put into it as a goodwill for promoting this new event and looking at a long-term relationship.
"We didn’t anticipate that we’d have to chase them for almost two years for goods and services. I told them, ‘We’ve burned up the fireworks. We don’t have them to restock … we pulled six insurance certificates, that costs money.’"
The original claim was made March 31, and extended on May 7 due to issues with the process service. Palmer said they were told general manager Ray Walker could not receive the affidavit because he was furloughed by the club.
On May 14, Palmer said Walker was temporarily unfurloughed and able to receive it. The court allowed Canfire to serve the final paperwork through registered mail, and Wagner signed for it May 20.
The court date is July 7 in Brandon. Palmer is looking forward to a resolution.
"It’s really a slap in the face and … it leaves a really sour taste in my mouth and others," Palmer said. "Justice is slow and deliberate and we will prevail. We will collect the money."
Wagner did not respond to multiple requests for comment via email and telephone Friday and Saturday.
The Whiskey Jacks replied to Source for Sports’ Facebook post on the weekend, stating "The Whiskey Jacks have paid Brandon Source for Sports approximately 75% of the total amount purchased from them. We remain committed to payment of the remaining balance."
When the team announced it would have to play the 2020 season in the States — before failing to find a home in time — Wagner told the Sun the club was "100 per cent committed to Brandon, Manitoba."
"I love the community, love the people. I think we started something really great there," he said.
Following the pandemic-truncated campaign, the tune remained the same.
"We really appreciate the patience of everyone in Brandon," Wagner said in August 2020. "We had to work through a season where it was just impossible to play, but we’ll be back. We’ll have a great 2021 season and many seasons beyond that, and I can’t wait."
» Twitter: @thomasmfriesen