Successful Return To Richmond Has Baseball Team Aiming For New Stadium

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For now, all the Richmond Flying Squirrels (Eastern) have is a rendering of a new ballpark, which they say the city needs to keep minor league baseball in town.

The franchise hopes the sketch of a proposed $50 million facility will become a reality in the not-so-distant future, and that a ballpark will rise up on a plot of land next to The Diamond, the 27-year old stadium that the Flying Squirrels currently (and somewhat reluctantly) call home.

But if building a ballpark in Richmond was that simple, it would have happened a long time ago. It would have happened for the Richmond Braves, the city's former International League franchise that tried to get a ballpark built for the better part of a decade before leaving for the Atlanta suburbs after the 2007 season.

Neither history nor the complex municipal structure in Richmond are on the Flying Squirrels' side. The Diamond is operated by the Richmond Metropolitan Authority, which consists of representatives from the city of Richmond and neighboring Chesterfield and Henrico counties. Trying to get all three entities to act together was frustrating enough to drive the Braves out of town after 42 years. And it's been challenging enough for the Flying Squirrels to ponder doing the same after two years upon realizing that a new ballpark wasn't going to come as quickly as local officials initially promised. However, recent developments give the team reason for optimism.

The city has signed off on the team's proposal to finance the stadium with 30-year bonds and have them paid off by the team and the three municipalities that make up the RMA. Now Flying Squirrels chief executive Chuck Domino is trying to get the two county jurisdictions to consider it.

"It's hard to get all three on the same page financially and economically," Domino said. "It's not easy. I'm not going to lie to you, it has taken longer than I expected to get there. I thought we would be breaking ground by 2013. The earliest now would be 2015. But we can't just brood about it. We have to keep forging ahead."

Forging ahead is how Domino thinks the franchise can change how things get done in Richmond. The Flying Squirrels have already done in their first two years what few expected: become part of the community while packing the antiquated ballpark with fans.

Behind a variety of promotions—the team welcomes fans to the ballpark every game with live music—and a strong community presence—team vice president Todd Parnell has become such a popular figure in Richmond that he served as grand marshal of the city's Christmas parade last year—the Flying Squirrels have become one of the best draws in the minor leagues. Richmond ranked second in the Eastern League last year and 17th overall by averaging 6,679 fans a game—a significant increase on the 4,880 the Braves averaged over their final two years in town.

So Domino is encouraging local officials and residents to remember only the recent past when considering a new ballpark.

"I think 90 percent of the encouraging comments toward the new ballpark are a direct result of our investment in and our success at The Diamond and how hard we've worked the promotions to fill the stadium," Domino said. "I think (locals) are really starting to understand what minor league baseball can mean to a region through our various community outreach initiatives too."

Model For Success

If you want proof, Domino says, just look at his other team 300 miles away. Domino is also president of the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, an International League franchise that debuted in 2008 and has led minor league baseball in attendance in each of the last two seasons. The IronPigs share the Flying Squirrels' creative approach to promotions and community outreach. Most of their slogans are pig-related, including the catchy "Laugh-Cheer-Oink." But what has set Lehigh Valley apart is the 10,000-seat Coca Cola Park.

Built for the IronPigs when the team moved to Allentown, Pa., from Ottawa, the ballpark features a wraparound concourse, a gigantic scoreboard and a variety of seating options, varying from luxury suites and club seating to drink rails along the concourse to picnic areas with views of the field. Not surprisingly, the Flying Squirrels have modeled their proposed ballpark on the Lehigh Valley stadium.

"A lot of people think, 'The Diamond has suites, concession stands and a scoreboard. Isn't that all you need?' Yeah, that's all you need in 1984," Domino said. "Expectations are a lot higher now, from concession stands to family bathrooms to an open concourse.

"The industry has changed so much that the people of Richmond have been cheated since they haven't been able to experience what a lot of other smaller communities have been able to experience (with a new stadium)." So next up for Domino is to convince the rest of the Richmond Metropolitan Authority that the team can duplicate the Lehigh Valley experience and keeping the Flying Squirrels in town is worth the investment. The team has proposed financing the stadium with 30-year bonds and splitting servicing that debt four ways: between the team and the three municipalities that make up the RMA. Domino thinks it's a proposal worth considering.

"We've been waiting for a time when everybody is ready to sit down and tweak that model if it needs to be tweaked," Domino said. "We haven't heard definitely that it can't work. It just seems that no one seem to think it is the right time to roll up their sleeves and see if it would work. Until they feel they are out of the woods with their budgets, we seem to be in a holding pattern. You have to wait for somebody to step forward and recently the city has stepped forward and committed that they can make it work. So we're halfway there. But at the same time we're halfway not there . . . There is still a lot of work that needs to be done