When it comes to professional baseball in Nashville, everything old is new again.
On Monday afternoon the Pacific Coast League's Nashville Sounds -- Triple-A affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers -- broke ground on a ballpark in north Nashville. The new stadium, slated to open in time for the 2015 season, marks a return to the area where Sulphur Dell Park once stood. Sulphur Dell hosted Negro and Minor League Baseball teams from the 19th century through 1963, including a six-decade run as the home of the Southern Association's Nashville Vols.
Minor League Baseball returned to Nashville in 1978, when the Sounds -- named for the sound associated with the city's famous country music scene -- played their inaugural season at south Nashville's Greer Stadium. The team has long made clear its desire for a more modern and accessible stadium, resulting in a protracted effort to obtain funding that has included myriad false starts and scrapped proposals.
Monday's groundbreaking ceremony assured that, this time around, a new Nashville ballpark will indeed become a reality. The stadium proposal was spearheaded by mayor Karl Dean in November, and metro council approved funding for the project on Dec. 10. The city will issue municipal bonds to cover an estimated $65 million price tag -- including both construction and land acquisition costs -- with the Sounds committing to a 30-year lease agreement running through the 2045 campaign. Though the team is not contributing directly to the construction of the ballpark, Sounds ownership has pledged $60 million toward mixed-use real estate development in the surrounding area.
"This was the location that the mayor wanted, and we wanted, and the stars all aligned in the right direction," said Sounds owner Frank Ward, speaking by phone Friday. "Everything just worked, that's probably the easiest way to say it."
Ward went on to say that the new stadium will have "a little something for everyone" and that it will be modeled in part on other successful Triple-A facilities such as those that can be found in Allentown, Pa., and Columbus, Ohio.
Among the dignitaries in attendance at Monday's groundbreaking was Minor League Baseball president Pat O'Conner, who has supported efforts to build a new Nashville stadium throughout his six-plus years at the helm of the industry.
"As we all know, this was a long time coming -- so kudos go out to [Ward] and his ownership group, Mayor Dean, and the metro commission for their persistence. In this day and age, in this economy, it takes a lot of work to get the public-private partnership just right and I think that has happened here," said O'Conner, reached on Monday morning prior to the ceremony. "And I'm really excited for what this means globally for Minor League Baseball, because Nashville is such a nice market both demographically and geographically. Sulphur Dell is where Nashville baseball has its roots, and now there is the opportunity to revitalize a portion of the town that could use a catalyst."
O'Conner also praised the Milwaukee Brewers organization, now in their 10th season as the Sounds' parent club, for "hanging in there." The Player Development Contract (PDC) between the two organizations expires after the 2014 season, but the Brewers have long been enthusiastic backers of Nashville's efforts to build a new stadium, and a renewal of that agreement seems probable. Brewers general manager Doug Melvin was in attendance at Monday's groundbreaking, although the brightest Major League star wattage came courtesy of an appearance by Albert Pujols. The Los Angeles Angels first baseman never played for the Sounds, but is in the city this week promoting the Nashville-area branch of his charitable Albert Pujols Family Foundation.
This season will mark the Sounds' 37th and final one at Greer Stadium. As they say goodbye to that venerable facility -- best known for its iconic guitar-shaped scoreboard -- work will be proceeding apace on the next chapter in the city's Sulphur Dell baseball saga.
"Despite all of the roadblocks that popped up along the way, now is the time to exhale and get to work," said O'Conner. "This marks the chance to re-establish Nashville as a major market in Minor League Baseball."
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.