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Is the ‘Curse of Diamond Duck’ over before it took hold?

Al Harris November 5, 2008 0

renderingbaseballbottom_thumb1Richmond might some day lament the day Diamond Duck left for Atlanta, ushering in an era without baseball.

A new stadium would probably cure any budding curse before it becomes debilitating. (Read: Curse of the Bambino) Developer Highwoods Properties and their team have until March 1 to submit a letter of intent and outline their financing plans for a $60 million Shockoe Bottom baseball stadium. Several calls to Highwoods were not returned, but representatives of the development team have told other media outlets that the project will require limited public financing.

Financing is one of the big questions regarding the likelihood of a baseball stadium that doesn’t have a team to inhabit its proposed dugout. A look at other recently developed downtown stadiums reveals mixed results about the whole endeavor.

The proposed $60 million stadium is the centerpiece of the $363 million Shockoe Center mixed-use project, which includes 200,000 square feet of office space, 80,000 square feet of retail and restaurants, 300 hotel rooms, 250 apartments, 60 condos and two parking decks. Brian Glass, a commercial broker for Harrison & Bates, says the new stadium won’t happen for $60 million.

“There hasn’t been a stadium built in the country that has met budget with public-private financing,” Glass said.

Glass said downtown stadiums aren’t good economic generators because they are used only part of the year and remain vacant most of the time. He also said such a project will have little public support. Glass, who had a commercial real estate column for five years, wrote regularly about the Diamond and where it should be. He said his readers were opposed to putting the stadium in the Bottom by a 20-to-1 spread. “If you use the philosophy of ‘build it and they will come,’ I wouldn’t bet the farm on that,” Glass said.

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Another unknown is the likelihood of actually finding a team to play. A group of private investors represented by Bryan Bostic are in charge of finding a Triple A team. Minor league schedules are set for 2009, so the group hopes to secure a home team to start in 2010. BizSense has been unable to reach Bostic.

Kevin Reichard, editor of Ball Park Digest, says relocating a team can be a rigid political process.

“Minor league baseball controls the market. It isn’t as though an owner of a team can say, ‘I’m going to sell this,’ and the minor league will be happy,” Reichard said. “There is a very specific pecking order as to what leagues controls the territory.”

Triple A baseball includes the International League and the Pacific Coast League. There also is a Mexican League. Reichard says Richmond will need to find an International League team if it is going to be Triple A, and the only one he thinks is available to move is the Charlotte Knights.

The Knights’ current stadium is in Fort Mill, S.C., and owned by York County. They operate a year-to-year lease. The team has sought to build a stadium in uptown Charlotte for the past few years, but progress has been impeded by lawsuits. Falling attendance at their current location and difficulties building a new ballpark might lead the Knights to Richmond if the local investors can offer them a favorable deal and the Shockoe stadium plan is set before they work out the kinks for a new stadium in Charlotte.

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Even if a stadium is built, that doesn’t ensure a thriving district and a jammed house all summer. Reichard says downtown ballparks have an unproven track record. “It’s a model that doesn’t always lead to economic revival,” Reichard said. “There are mixed results in cities, and it kind of depends on how the downtown ball park is sold.”

Improving quality of life is a better rationale for downtown stadiums than promises of economic development, Reichard said.

AutoZone Park in downtown Memphis is one of the success stories. Home of the Redbirds, the park opened in 2000. Since then, the park has set attendance records in the Pacific Coast League, drawing thousands of people to nearby hotels and restaurants that opened on the heels of the new stadium. City and county government bought the land for the park for $8.5 million, and revenue from the park is being used to pay off a $72 million bond issue.

Another successful stadium is Fluor Field at the West End in downtown Greenville, S.C. The $15 million, 5,700-seat stadium is a mini-replica of Fenway Park and home to the Drive, a Class A Boston Red Sox affiliate. The promise of a new stadium attracted the team from its previous home in Columbia, S.C. Attendance has remained high since the stadium opened in 2006, and condominiums, offices and retail have sprouted nearby. Residents love the stadium, according to two former Greenville residents who now live in Richmond.

Although new ballparks are aiding rejuvenation efforts in some cities, others aren’t meeting expectations. Development around the publicly financed Nationals Park in Washington has come to a halt because of the credit crunch, according to the Washington Times. A 340-unit condominium complex and 50,000 square feet of retail space a block from the stadium has stopped because of difficulty in borrowing money. A number of office projects are on hold in the area.

In Kentucky, Two restaurants at Louisville Slugger Field closed their doors last month because of uncertain economic conditions. The Louisville Bats, a Triple A team, call the stadium home.

ripkenstadiumIn Maryland, the city of Aberdeen has accrued $6.7 million in stadium-related debt since Ripken Stadium opened in 2002, according to the Baltimore Sun. Planned development projects around the stadium, whose tax receipts were expected to pay off the state-issued bonds, failed to materialize. Meanwhile, the stadium’s Class A Ironbirds attract sellout crowds and, as part of their contract with the city, keep almost all the revenue generated at games.

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