The Charlotte Knights' 2012 season came to a close
Thursday evening, as they were swept by the Pawtucket Red Sox in the International League Championship Series. But come Friday morning, the team was already hurtling full speed into the future.
The Knights held a groundbreaking ceremony for what will be known as BB&T Ballpark, a $54 million facility located in Charlotte's uptown Third Ward neighborhood that will host the team in 2014 and beyond. Construction is slated to begin early next week, with an estimated completion date of Dec. 31, 2013. Therefore, 2013 will mark the team's 24th and final season at Knights Stadium, which is located across the state line in the suburb of Fort Mill, South Carolina.
The road to Friday's groundbreaking ceremony was a protracted one for the Knights, who had been engaged in a decade-long battle to secure funding for the stadium. Roadblocks along the way included shifting civic priorities in the midst of a down economy, as well as repeated lawsuits challenging the legality of the various funding proposals that were put forth (efforts spearheaded by crusading local attorney Jerry Reese, an advocate of bringing a Major League Baseball team to Charlotte).
Funding for BB&T Ballpark was ultimately secured through a public-private partnership, with the Knights shouldering the bulk of the financing burden. The city of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County are contributing $8 million apiece to the project, and the county will lease the land on which the stadium resides for a decidedly less-than-market-value rate of $1 a year. Knights general manager and vice president Dan Rajkowski said that the uptown location, which will provide views of the Charlotte skyline, is ideal.
Rajkowski remarked that the path to Friday's ceremony has been, "quite a journey and a testament to the hard work of those committed to this great project in center city."
"There's no better location in terms of the potential for further development," he continued. "There are so many people who work uptown and live uptown."
The Charlotte Knights officially broke ground on the new ballpark on Sept. 14. (Knights)
That's why Rajkowski envisions the Knights becoming one of the top-drawing teams in all of Minor League Baseball (an honor currently held by their International League brethren, the Lehigh Valley IronPigs). He extols the amenities that BB&T Ballpark will provide, such as 22 private suites; dugout suites; dedicated "club" areas for groups and season-ticket holders; and a home run porch in right field. Located just beyond this home run porch will be brand-new Bearden Park, a 5.4 acre urban park and event space named after artist and Charlotte native Romare Bearden. Additionally, there are plans to build an on-site hotel beyond left-center field as well as a year-round restaurant to be located in the southeast corner of the stadium.
The 2013 season will be a bittersweet campaign, then, as the Knights bid adieu to the stadium that they have called home since 1990.
"It will be time to say goodbye to the experiences we've had for 25 years, and move into the future," said Rajkowski. "York County [where the Knights are currently located] is and always will be part of where we draw from. We'll be moving 18 miles up the road, but York County has been our home, and that is still a valued fan base."
That 18-mile trip has become a familiar one for Rajkowski and his staff, as they balance the demands of running the show at one facility while preparing to move in to another.
"We've had our running shoes on, but that's okay," he said. "We see the prize at the end of this; it will be a great thing for the community."
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter at @bensbiz.