Prior to the 2012 season, the South Bend Silver Hawks team store could perhaps have been more adequately described as a kiosk. It was nothing more than a converted concession stand of approximately 150 square feet, featuring a small assortment of merchandise and staffed by a single employee.
But those days of limited selection (and even more limited movement) are over, thanks to a likely unprecedented initiative the D-backs' Class A affiliate undertook as part of a recent renovation project at 26-year-old Coveleski Stadium (colloquially referred to as "The Cove"). The team store is now housed within a large and ornately constructed building located just beyond left field, an edifice that can quite accurately be described as possessing a religious grandeur.
It used to be a synagogue.
An unlikely transformation
The building in question, which in its original incarnation was known as the B'Nai Yisrael Reconstructionist Synagogue, far predates Coveleski Stadium. It opened in 1901 and served South Bend's Jewish community for nine decades before finally closing in 1991 after a protracted period of declining membership. The city of South Bend, cognizant of the synagogue's historic value and fearful of seeing it torn down, eventually purchased the building. But outside of some minor structural upkeep, it had sat empty and neglected before the Silver Hawks repurposed it.
Team president Joe Hart noted that the idea to convert the synagogue to a team store goes back to the team's previous ownership group, which lacked the funds to make the project a reality. But prior to the 2012 season, Chicago-area businessman Andrew Berlin purchased the team from a consortium of mostly local investors led by former South Bend mayor Joe Kernan, a move that significantly altered franchise finances. In addition to signifying his commitment to South Bend by signing a 20-year stadium lease extension, Berlin contributed $3 million of his own money toward another phase of an extensive stadium renovation project that had already included a new playing surface, dugouts and a videoboard. Approximately $1 million of this cash infusion went toward the "new" team store.
"We knew that there needed to be changes once Andrew bought the team, and one of those changes involved creating the space for a walk-in store," Hart said. "While it would have been far cheaper to construct a new stand-alone building, we didn't want to turn down the chance to incorporate [the synagogue] into the redesign. It's such a unique space."
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After the synagogue was purchased by the city in the 1990s it had been deconsecrated -- a term that refers to a ceremony during which the original religious blessing bestowed upon a building is removed -- and, therefore, the Silver Hawks weren't under a specific obligation to consult with South Bend's Jewish community regarding their renovation plans. Nonetheless, they felt that it would be prudent to do so.
"From the beginning of the process on, we met with the Jewish community, because in doing any renovations whatsoever we wanted to get their blessing," Hart said. "We were told 'You didn't need to reach out to us, because [after the deconsecration] it's no longer a synagogue.' But they were appreciative and supportive of what we wanted to do, because they too wanted to see the building restored."
That doesn't mean that South Bend's Jewish leaders were receptive to all of the team's ideas, however.
"Because the building is located just beyond the left-field wall, we had talked about putting a sign on the roof with a 'Hit It Here' bulls-eye target on it," Hart said. "But when we mentioned that, we were told that [the target] wouldn't be a good fit for the roof of an old synagogue. We respected that, and they were probably correct."
Consensus was easy to reach regarding the vast majority of the renovations, however, which included refurbishing the original tin roof and rebuilding and reinstalling the decorative finials on the building's exterior. Additionally, $40,000 was spent to restore the majestic chandelier that had long served as the synagogue's centerpiece.
Everything old is new again
The Silver Hawks' synagogue-turned-team store is a unique accomplishment, and Hart remarked "he would put it up against any Minor League merchandise store out there." It'd be tough to argue against that sentiment, but on a broader scale, one can observe similar acts of ballpark re-contextualizing throughout Minor League Baseball.
A 19th-century railroad depot was incorporated into the design of Louisville Slugger Field, for example, and Rochester's Frontier Field was positioned so that an existing building located beyond right field would simulate the look of Baltimore's B&O Warehouse. (The Rochester Red Wings were an Orioles affiliate at the time the stadium was reconstructed.) On a larger scale, Durham Bulls Athletic Park is the centerpiece of the city's Tobacco District. The stadium is located amidst a cluster of former tobacco factories and warehouses that have since been converted into apartments, offices, bars, restaurants and a museum.
Such innovations are ultimately going to be judged by whether or not they enhance the bottom line, and the Silver Hawks have been working to make sure that their team store justifies its initial $1 million expenditure. The store officially opened May 25 last season, a bit past the team's initial Opening Day projections.
"When you're dealing with a building that's 110 years old, you think you know what's behind the walls, but really you don't," said Hart, explaining the delay.
In 2012, the Silver Hawks only utilized about two-thirds of the store's 1,800 square feet, keeping the rest open so that they could host in-game events such as mascot autograph signings. This was a strategic decision, in that it helped to drive fan traffic to (and create awareness of) an area of the ballpark that, prior to the season, wasn't an area of the ballpark at all.
Despite the late opening, Silver Hawks merchandise sales increased by 60 percent in 2012 and further growth is expected this year. Whereas last season the team stuck to the basics (hats, t-shirts, mini-bats and foam fingers, according to Hart), in 2013, inventory will be expanded to include regionally minded apparel representing the Cubs, White Sox, Reds and Tigers as well as collegiate entities such as Purdue University, and of course, Notre Dame.
"Here we are in a facility going into its 26th year, and what we have here is an essentially brand-new component," Hart said. "It gives us both a great talking point and gathering space, and I'd venture to say that it can't be replicated by anybody."
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog.