Ballpark Building Is No Easy Task
Baseball America's Battle of the Ballparks, a Facebook promotion that we're running that lets you the fans vote on which parks make it into our Great Parks Calendar, has me in a ballpark state of mind.
Naturally we have been looking through a lot of photographs of ballparks in preparation for the contest, as we always do when we select the stadiums that go into our calendar. I also did research on the stadiums so that I could tell people more about them as they made their decisions.
And it reminded me once again just how difficult it is to get a minor league ballpark built. The examples are all around us. In the Battle of the Ballparks, we're reminded that people in Pensacola have been working since at least 2005 to get a stadium built there, before it finally opened this season.
Businessman Quint Studer first entered the fray when he bought a team in the Southeastern League, a fledgling independent league that lasted one season. The Pensacola Pelicans endured, however, playing in the Central League and then the American Association. At the same time, Studer became one of three principals in what was called the Community Maritime Project, a huge development by the Pensacola Bay that featured a new minor league ballpark, among other things.
Years of political wrangling ensued, the details of which are probably interesting only to the people of Pensacola. The project was scaled back, Studer became a lightning rod for controversy, but finally in 2009 the local city council gave final approval for the project. Studer bought a Southern League franchise and moved it to town, and the Pensacola Blue Wahoos were a huge hit in their first season. The team sold out 40 of its 68 home dates and led the Southern League in attendance with 328,147 fans.
The citizens of Pensacola can debate whether the project was good or bad for the area, but as minor league fans we're happy to have Pensacola Bayfront Stadium. Photographs of the ballpark are spectacular, so I can't wait to see it in person.
Projects In The Works
Similar wrangling is going on now in Wilmington, N.C., and El Paso, Texas, symbolic of just how tough it can be.
El Paso's city council has already voted to approve the lease for a $50 million project that would create a new downtown ballpark for the Pacific Coast League franchise currently playing in Tucson. But now a local group is suing the city in federal court to try to stop the project.
The PCL franchise is looking for a home in El Paso because a previous plan to move to suburban San Diego fell through.
Escondido, Calif., had a plan in place to build a ballpark for a Pacific Coast League franchise that would have been a Padres affiliate. But California's budget crisis meant the city lost $23 million in state money for the project, so the team had to find a temporary home in Tucson. And that's similar to lawsuits in Charlotte that held up a new downtown ballpark for years before the project finally got approved this summer. Ground has been broken on Charlotte's new park, and it is scheduled to open for the 2014 season.
The challenges in Wilmington are more straightforward. Plans to finance a $37 million downtown ballpark are going to a public vote in November. Supporters argue it's a boon for the city and its quality of life, while opponents say taxpayers shouldn't have to foot the bill.
Wilmington has long been considered one of the most attractive markets for a minor league team, but without a new ballpark it just doesn't make sense in the city, which has no viable, professional-quality alternative.
Polling in October indicated those opposing the ballpark were in the lead, though both sides planned big campaign pushes in the final weeks before the referendum.
I have seen plenty of cities that tried over and over to build new ballparks and attract teams, to no avail. Springfield, Mass., is the most memorable example to me, because supporters in the city seemed so sure that a ballpark was coming throughout the 1990s, and something always killed those plans.
But there are also places like Fresno, which struggled for years and years to get a new ballpark before finally succeeding in 1998.
The debate never changes, but ultimately it comes down to the people and leaders of a city having to decide how much they want to pay to have minor league baseball. I can see both sides of the debate, but I will say that you won't find many minor league cities that regret their investment.