Batting Around: Ballpark news you can use

Stadium updates from West Michigan, Richmond, Augusta, Columbia

Despite wintry weather, the rebuilding of West Michigan's Fifth Third Ballpark is on schedule. (West Michigan Whitecaps)

By Benjamin Hill / | February 27, 2014 10:00 AM ET

Welcome to Batting Around, a biweekly look at local off-the-field news from around the country. If you have an item to contribute for potential inclusion in a future edition, please email Ben Hill.

Never in doubt

A vicious fire raged throughout the first-base side of the West Michigan Whitecaps' Fifth Third Ballpark on Jan. 3, destroying approximately 40 percent of the facility. Despite this imposing setback, team co-founder Denny Baxter immediately declared that Fifth Third Ballpark would be ready for business for the home opener on April 8.

The Whitecaps have never wavered from his bold proclamation and, during Feb. 15's open house event, fans got their first opportunity to see the progress that has been made as the team rebuilds. The first 1,000 people through the doors received a T-shirt bearing the words, "Never a Doubt," and over the course of the five-hour event, the club sold more than 1,200 Opening Day tickets. As I learned when I visited West Michigan last June, Whitecaps fans can be a very dedicated bunch.

14' x 48' debate

Dissatisfaction with The Diamond, Richmond's nearly 30-year-old ballpark, was one of the primary reasons the Richmond Braves departed for Gwinnett following the 2008 campaign. And when the team now known as the Flying Squirrels relocated to Richmond in 2010, ownership made it clear that a new stadium was a top priority.

It's been a slow process, to say the least, but things have been heating up. Richmond mayor Dwight Jones has put forth a new stadium proposal as part of his "Revitalize RVA" plan, to be located in the city's Shockoe Bottom district. This proposal has been controversial for reasons both financial and historical -- a slave-trading market was once located in Shockoe Bottom -- and debate has been fierce. Proponents and opponents have both bought digital billboards succinctly summarizing their positions, reports Richmond TV station WTVR, bringing their messages to the masses. On the pro side are billboards declaring sentiments such as "Shockoe Development = More Jobs! Revitalize RVA, YES!" Those opposed have disseminated messages along the lines of "NO SHOCKOE STADIUM. Dear Council, We are Watching!...Your Voters."

As WTVR notes at the end of their report, "This is a developing story."

Getting the ball rolling

Though a fine enough place to visit, the Augusta GreenJackets' home -- Lake Olmstead Stadium -- is widely considered to be outmoded and isolated. Whether the team is successful in its quest to have a new stadium built remains to be seen, but the events of Feb. 17 marked a positive step forward. The North Augusta City Council passed a resolution choosing as stadium architect Odell Associates, a firm that served as the lead designer on Charlotte's BB&T Park (set to open in April).

The selection of Odell Associates was a strategic move, in that it could spur subsequent retail investment. From the Augusta Chronicle:

City Administrator Todd Glover reiterated what city officials have said in the past -- that the developer must have private investments confirmed before the city will go forward with construction.

"The problem is the hotel and the apartments and the restaurants and retail, they won't commit until they know where they're going to be," Glover said. "They won't know where they're going to be until you establish a footprint for the stadium. So that's why we're doing it in phases."

Sand Gnats standing pat?

Previous editions of this column have included information on efforts to build a new stadium in Columbia, S.C., one of the largest markets in the country without a Minor League Baseball team. Jason Freier, owner of the Savannah Sand Gnats and Fort Wayne TinCaps, has spearheaded these efforts, saying that if Columbia builds a ballpark he will locate a team there.

The Tin Caps are a thriving franchise locked into a long-term stadium lease, so they aren't going anywhere. That's led to speculation that the Sand Gnats will be on the move, and though this may be the case, it's not quite so simple. On Feb. 18, Freier wrote an op-ed column for the Savannah Morning News in which he expressed a desire to keep the Sand Gnats in Savannah, so long as the city can commit to a replacement for ancient Grayson Stadium. An excerpt:

Regardless of what some may say, the Sand Gnats do not want to leave Savannah.

Unfortunately, there are numerous challenges in operating an aging, neglected facility. ... Over four years ago, we shared with the city a plan to develop a multi-use outdoor sports and entertainment venue in downtown Savannah. ... It would catalyze economic development, create jobs, bring entertainment and tourist dollars into the city, and provide an amenity for citizens and visitors.

For the last four years we have worked in good faith with city leaders to extend our time at and maintain and improve Grayson, patiently waiting for the city to conduct the due diligence necessary to make an informed decision about the proposal. We have been straightforward in all of our discussions, explaining that, while we love the historic aspects of Grayson, we cannot continue to operate there for the long term.

Meanwhile, in Columbia, the city is considering funding options for a development project that would include a Minor League stadium. Freier has said that if the Sand Gnats stay put, he would acquire a third team and move it to South Carolina's capital city.

In brief
  • A mixed-use project surrounding the Aberdeen IronBirds' home -- Ripken Stadium -- has fallen through. Now the city council is debating how to best develop the area.
  • The El Paso City Council is debating whether or not to make the area surrounding the city's new ballpark a so-called "Fun Zone."
  • The former home of the Eugene Emeralds, Civic Stadium, has been bought by the city of Eugene. However, the purchase is contingent on stadium supporters raising million for renovations.

Benjamin Hill is a reporter for and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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