Fifth Third Ballpark, home of the West Michigan Whitecaps, is in many ways a typical Minor League Ballpark. The facility, built in 1994, features an open concourse, berm seating along the edge of both foul lines and outfield picnic and party decks.
But in one aspect, Detroit's Class A affiliate's stadium is a distinct anomaly within the professional sports landscape: It was not funded via the issuance of municipal bonds, sales tax increases, state grants or any other funding mechanisms relying on public money. From start to finish, from land acquisition through construction, it was built entirely with private funds.
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For Whitecaps co-founders Lew Chamberlin and Denny Baxter, private funding wasn't originally part of the plan. Chamberlin, in a phone interview Wednesday afternoon, took the time to detail how Fifth Third Ballpark (located in Comstock Park, Michigan, just north of Grand Rapids) came to be.
Chamberlin, a native of Grand Rapids, practiced law for several years before becoming involved in his family's steel supply business. He worked there until the mid-1980s when, as he puts it, "the big guys started eating up the Mom and Pop [steel] shops."
"This led me to a crossroads," said Chamberlin. "I started looking into the idea of Minor League Baseball in Grand Rapids … to see if it would be a potentially viable business in addition to a quality of life benefit for the community."
These initial explorations resulted in a partnership with Baxter, an accountant who had been doing his own research into the feasibility of Minor League Baseball in West Michigan. Bonded by a shared dream, the two joined forces.
"We proceeded to try to get a stadium built that would be publicly funded, here in Grand Rapids," said Chamberlin. "Well over 90 percent of baseball facilities, Minor and Major League, are publicly funded. It's not an uncommon funding blueprint, so we spent six or seven years exploring that. We pursued that dream without it ever coming to fruition, for reasons largely having to do with how the community was allocating its resources."
There was also the issue of credibility. While Chamberlin and Baxter both had strong ties to the Grand Rapids community, they had never been involved in a project of this magnitude. Furthermore, they had no Minor League Baseball experience. To alleviate these issues, they joined the ownership group of the Midwest League's Wassau Timbers. That team moved to Kane County, Illinois prior to the 1991 campaign and became the Cougars. The Cougars' stadium, originally known as Kane County Events Park, is owned by the Kane County Forest Preserve and a portion of the team's revenue goes back to the county.
"[Kane County] gave us experience and credibility in the community, that we did know what we were talking about," said Chamberlin. "We knew what worked and what didn't and in general terms we now knew how we wanted a [West Michigan] ballpark to look."
Emboldened, Chamberlin and Baxter sold their shares of the Cougars and turned all of their attention to getting a stadium built in West Michigan.
"We eventually decided, based on the experiences that we had in Kane County, that you know what? Do you want to rent your house or do you want to own your house? We decided we wanted to own our house. We thought we could do it, and we went for it."
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Upon deciding that they wanted to "own their house," Baxter and Chamberlin put together a business plan that included both the expense of acquiring land and building a ballpark.
"In pursuing private financing, we had an advantage in that we were not dealing with a public entity. When building a facility, you can do it more efficiently than the public sector," said Chamberlin. "We were able to put together a design and cost it out, one that we thought was efficient and affordable. Then we had to go out and sell it to investors, some of whom we already had on board because of our participation in Kane County. But we needed a lot more to raise enough equity to go to the bank and say, 'Hey, here's the skin we're putting in the game. Now give us a commercial loan to finish construction and we can move forward.'"
Chamberlin said once they started this effort, it "got going pretty quickly." They already had a design for the stadium, and were working with Old Kent Bank to secure the naming rights (Old Kent was later acquired by Fifth Third). At this point, rounding up investors for the project was a comparatively easy task.
"First and foremost, they're all local people. ... When you're talking about Minor League Baseball, that's the only way to go," said Chamberlin. "People in the community and people in leadership positions can truly understand what the value might be, if you can back it up with a business plan that shows this is not only great for the community but also you'll get a return on the investment."
It all fell into place. In 1993, Chamberlin and Baxter purchased the Midwest League's Madison Muskies, the team that became the Whitecaps. Construction began in May of that year and the stadium was completed in time for Opening Day 1994.
"You never know. We could have opened up in April of 1994 and watched the whole thing flop," said Chamberlin. "Fortunately, that wasn't the case. We always felt the community would respond if we could get over the hurdle of building the facility. There was a day in February or March of 1994, when we first put tickets on sale, where we literally had people lined up around the block waiting for tickets. Then we finally knew this would work out the way we hoped."
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The benefits of a privately funded stadium are manifold.
"We are able to capture all of the revenue streams. Secondly, and this is a pretty important one, if you own the facility then you're able to reinvest in a way that makes sense for your business and your business plan," said Chamberlin. "You don't have to keep going back to the city, the county, the state to get permission to add this, that or the other thing. We've literally invested millions of dollars since 1994, to the extent that [Fifth Third Ballpark] doesn't look anything like it did. We're able to reinvest, to make changes. If we wanted to paint the whole place purple next week, we could do it."
The importance of this autonomy was thrown into sharp focus in January 2014, when a fire engulfed much of the first-base side of the stadium. With Opening Day four months away, the Whitecaps were able to make the necessary repairs as well as expedite already-planned remodeling projects.
Given such benefits, as well as the rancorous public debate that accompanies virtually all publicly funded stadium proposals, is it possible for other teams to follow the Whitecaps' model?
"It's difficult for me to say. Every community is different," said Chamberlin. "The one thing that's different now is that the whole cost structure has changed. In 1994, we were able to build the stadium and acquire the franchise for significantly less than what it would cost now. That's one potential barrier to being able to do the privately funded approach."
He continued, "Perhaps investors have to be more patient now that they had to be 20 years ago, but if you're selling something that's potentially good for the community in terms of quality of life and name recognition then it's certainly possible. But it won't be easy."
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.