The potential relocation of Double-A Connecticut to Richmond may not be a done deal, writes the Richmond Times Dispatch’s John O’Connor today, because Minor League Baseball would like to see firm plans for a ballpark in place before it approves a deal.
That has long been the stance of MILB when it comes to this project, however of late it sounds like the Defenders may be coming to Richmond whether a deal for a new ballpark has been finalized or not. The Times Dispatch has reported, and a source confirmed, that future Defenders owner Bryan Bostic has the framework of a two-year lease in place to rent out The Diamond beginning in 2010. And in a recent conversation, MILB vice president Tim Purpura backed off a previous hard-line stance that plans for a new ballpark and a lease structure would have to be in place for a relocation to be approved.
Purpura made it clear that they still want a new ballpark in Richmond and thinks one is necessary for the game to thrive. But when asked if relocation will be approved even if plans for a new ballpark have not been finalized, Purpura said:
"We have to face that when we get to that point. We don’t feel like we are at that point as of yet. That is something (MILB president) Pat (O’Conner) and myself will have to discuss: What is the future of organized baseball in Richmond? It is clearly our preference and strong desire to have a new facility there. For organized baseball to survive there that is what we have to have done . . . On a temporary basis (at The Diamond), on a long-term basis, I don’t know. That clearly would not be our preference.
"Our clear preference is for organized baseball to return to Richmond it should be in a new stadium. Whether that is immediately upon returning or at a later date, that is to be determined."
The Times-Dispatch’s O’Connor spoke with Minor League Baseball’s vice president for legal affairs, Scott Poley, who seemed to second the sentiment that a team could come without a ballpark plan in place—but the team may not stay for long.
"There have been some cities here and there that, probably markets not as good as Richmond, but that have had a situation where there was an old ballpark and they never got around to building a new one," Poley told the Times Dispatch. "What happens is a team might stop there for a couple of years and use it as a way station."
This certainly has happened in the past, but never with a market as significant as Richmond—which, when counting the neighboring suburbs, was the largest in the Triple-A International League before the Braves abandoned it at the end of last season. The most comparable situation would be when the Double-A Nashville Xpress moved to Wilmington, N.C., in 1995 and played two seasons at UNC Wilmington’s Brooks Field under the moniker of the Port City Roosters.
Discussions for a new ballpark never panned out and the Roosters flew the coop for Mobile, Ala., where the BayBears have called home ever since.
However pulling out of Wilmington would be nothing like Bostic winning rights to the Richmond market—which both Purpura and O’Conner said had many suitors—and then giving it up. (Two calls to Bostic’s cellphone over the past two weeks have not been returned.)
The big question surrounding the Richmond ballpark proposal is why will it work now, particularly in a down economy, when so many plans there have faiied in the past. The current proposal calls for a $60 million ballpark to be built in the downtown Shockoe District as part of a $300-plus million retail development. Funding for the ballpark would come from the proceeds from the surrounding development. In fact, the ballpark would depend on it.
“What’s different about our proposal is that we have private development that will be built at the same time as the stadium and concourse,” Paul Kreckman, a senior vice president with Highwood Properties, developers for the Shockoe project, told Richmond Magazine. “We’ll either get it all done at once or we’re not going to do the deal.”
Such a dependency on retail development would seem like a risky plan considering the current economic slowdown and the slow pace of similar projects around other ballparks. Construction around the new Nationals Park has ground to a halt. Though Fort Wayne’s brand new Parkview Field has drawn rave reviews, the development surrounding it (including a planned hotel, condominiums and retail space) has largely gone unrealized. Even in Durham, which opened the DBAP in 1995, is just now unveiling an office park overlooking the ballpark and a performing arts center to go along with the neighboring Tobacco District mall.
The recent rumbling over renovating The Diamond in Richmond should also be worrisome, not necessarily because it is a bad idea but because it is very reminiscent to the back-and-forth debates the Braves had with the city in the four years they negotiated for a ballpark before finally fleeing to a new facility in Gwinnett, Ga., this season. The city often rebuffed the Braves’ calls for a new ballpark (a plan which the team offered to contribute to) by stating a renovation of The Diamond for half the cost would suffice. In reality, a teardown and rebuild of The Diamond would be needed, which, according to an architect familiar with the facility, would cost roughly the same as the $60 million for the Shockoe stadium.
So while the city awaits the results of a report on the viability of the Shockoe project, and as Bostic’s group complete its sale with Connecticut, the question still remains . . . why will plans for a new ballpark work in Richmond now when they have failed so many times in the past?
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