El Paso prepares to 'play ball' in PCL
The Pacific Coast League already extends far beyond what its name would imply, including far-flung locales such as Nashville and Colorado Springs. In 2014, El Paso will be added to the mix.
This impending reality was made official Thursday at a stadium groundbreaking in Downtown El Paso. The ceremonial event was attended by a wide array of league, state and city officials as well as 300 members of the general public, who gathered to mark the start of construction.
The downtown facility is slated to open in April 2014 as the home of the San Diego Padres' Triple-A affiliate; the franchise is currently playing its third and final season in Tucson, having been purchased by El Paso-based MountainStar Sports Group this past October.
The yet-to-be-named stadium is expected to cost approximately $52 million, funded primarily via an increase in El Paso's hotel occupancy tax. It will be located where City Hall had once stood, as that building was imploded last month to make room for the stadium.
In addition to extending the PCL's already expansive footprint, El Paso is unique in that it will be the only Minor League market located on an international border. As such, Thursday's groundbreaking included remarks in Spanish and was attended by dignitaries and media from the neighboring city of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
The stadium, designed by the architectural firm Populous, will have a capacity of approximately 9,500 people (including a grass berm seating area). Included therein are the sort of amenities that have come to be associated with 21st century ballparks, such as a 360-degree concourse, high-definition videoboard, luxury suites and an expansive Kid's Zone play area.
The path to El Paso's stadium groundbreaking was often a contentious one, with opponents of the project attempting to halt construction via a series of petitions and lawsuits. Going forward, a primary focus of the team's front office will be to pitch the community on just what it is that Minor League teams can bring to the region.
"Anytime you have a project of this magnitude, it's going to be a challenge, but people in El Paso ultimately had the vision to make it work," said Brad Taylor, the team's general manager. "I think once people see what they're getting, they're really going to love it. ... This is truly a downtown stadium, flat in the middle of downtown, and starting with the brickwork, the architecture will reflect that. And culturally there will be a lot of fun things, like the food, that will reflect the location of El Paso as a border town."
Taylor is new to the region, having just started his job this week, but he's a veteran when it comes to the task of creating and marketing a new team's identity. He was the first employee of the Bowling Green Hot Rods when that club located from Columbus, Ga., following the 2008 season and remained with the team until relocating to El Paso.
"For me to come here, the right pieces had to be in place," he said. "There's a committed local ownership group, and [MountainStar Sports president] Alan Ledford has had tremendous success elsewhere. That, along with affiliated baseball at its highest level in one of the greatest stadiums in Minor League Baseball, is a perfect recipe for success."
El Paso previously hosted an affiliated franchise from 1974 until 2004 called the Diablos. A member of the Double-A Texas League, the team was sold to the St. Louis Cardinals and relocated to Springfield prior to the 2005 season.
Also of note: El Paso wasn't the only city to make news yesterday as Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant announced that the city of Biloxi has been awarded a $15 million grant to build a new stadium. This money will be combined with state funds, giving the stadium project an estimated budget of $36 million. Construction will begin if and when an ownership group (headed by veteran Minor League executive Ken Young) finalizes the purchase of an existing Southern League franchise. The identity of the Southern League team that might relocate has not been divulged.
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.