Leaving the lake?

Baseball is a step closer to finding a new home in downtown Augusta.

 

Mayor Deke Copenhaver and Bill Ripken, of the Ripken Baseball Group, will hold a news conference this morning to announce the formation of an exploratory committee to do just that.

"It's still in the infancy stages, but it's a very exciting project," the mayor said Monday. "This is just the first step to see if it's a viable project."

After being approached months ago by the Ripken Group, the organization that owns the Augusta GreenJackets, Mr. Copenhaver recently was presented a drawing of the proposed stadium.

The proposal would move the GreenJackets from Lake Olmstead Stadium, off Milledge Road, to land on Reynolds Street next to the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame's Botanical Gardens, which has been struggling financially.

"This could be really, really good for everybody involved," Mr. Ripken said. "If everything can be worked out in all areas, and all concerns can be addressed, and everybody says it's a good thing, why not explore it?"

The GreenJackets, a low Class A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants, have played in Lake Olmstead Stadium since 1995. The park was built in 1994 and seats 4,322, making it the third-smallest stadium in the 16-team South Atlantic League.

Last season, Ripken Baseball's first year of ownership, the GreenJackets saw the second-highest increase in home attendance in all the minor leagues (22.2 percent). The team averaged 2,475 fans per game.

The idea of a new facility downtown has been a subject of speculation since last fall, when Mr. Copenhaver and Ripken Baseball President and Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. discussed the idea at a news conference.

Estimates put the draw of a downtown baseball stadium at 400,000 people, said Mr. Copenhaver, who threw out the first pitch at Monday night's home opener. That traffic could benefit the Golf Hall of Fame and ween it from state funding, he said.

The stadium also would further downtown development, Mr. Copenhaver said.

For months, some downtown businesses have been posting fliers that read, "Bring baseball downtown," along with a GreenJackets logo.

It sounds like a good idea to GreenJackets manager Roberto Kelly, a former major leaguer.

"I think it would be good for the city," he said. "This lets the people of Augusta know the Ripkens are serious about building baseball around the city, which is good. (A new stadium) would be a big step."

The exploratory committee will visit downtown stadiums in Durham and Greensboro, N.C., and Greenville, S.C.

Ultimately, the decision to build a downtown stadium will be up to the public, Mr. Copenhaver said. The voters would have the final say in a referendum.

Reach Greg Gelpi and Steve Sanders at (706) 724-0851.

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