Originally created 11/05/99

City ponders new stadium

SAVANNAH -- The Savannah Sand Gnats and the city of Savannah are exploring the possibility of building a new baseball stadium.

But luxury boxes and other fan amenities may have to wait for a while.

City and county officials say the project would cost $10 million to $12 million and could be at least five years away, depending on the method of financing.

The new facility would replace Grayson Stadium, built in 1941 and in need of upgrading to meet minimum standards of Minor League Baseball.

Joe Shearouse, director of leisure services, said one method of financing would be the special purpose local option sales tax, which was used to build Truman Parkway, the Chatham County soccer and swimming complexes and currently the Savannah International Trade and Convention Center on Hutchinson Island.

The tax runs until Sept. 30, 2003, and could be extended if a referendum is passed. But the money wouldn't be collected until 2004, Mr. Shearouse said, so it would be 2005 before a new stadium could be built.

Another option to pay for the stadium is to use revenue from the hotel-motel tax.

Pat Monahan, assistant county manager, said half of that revenue goes to balance the city budget. But Mr. Monahan said the city could decide to use that money toward a new stadium instead.

Under that scenario, construction of a new stadium could begin as early as next year. The only problem, Mr. Monahan said, is that the city would have to find some other way to make up those dollars.

Sand Gnats owner Ken Silver would prefer the second option. But Mr. Shearouse said it was too early to start discussing financing.

"We don't know what we're going to build; we don't know where we're going to build it; we don't know what it's going to cost," he said. "Once we figure that out, then there are options."

Mr. Shearouse said the first order of business is to select an architectural firm to design the new stadium.

From an initial list of 11, eight firms have been chosen to submit proposals, Mr. Shearouse said. A seven-man committee, which includes representatives of the city and the ballclub, will review each proposal and recommend a firm to do the feasibility study.

The recommendation would then be sent to City Manager Michael Brown to place on the agenda for the city council. If approved, a contract would be signed to commission the study.

"What that will do is give us a blueprint for what (the architectual firm) thinks should be done," Mr. Shearouse said.

"We'll probably get something that we can look at around early spring, March or April. What we hope happens is that everybody looks at it and says, `That's exactly what we want to do.' Then the next step is `How do we pay for it?"'

If a new stadium is built, that would continue a boom that has swept Minor League Baseball in the past 10 years. According to Baseball America, Minor League teams have opened 73 new ballparks since 1989, including 53 since 1993.

In the South Atlantic League, the Augusta GreenJackets are among eight teams that have built new ballparks or had extensive stadium renovations this decade.

Mr. Silver said he's "perfectly content" with how things are going concerning a new stadium in Savannah.

"We've had good discussions and I believe the city when they tell me they're going to do things," Mr. Silver said. "So far, they haven't disappointed me."

Proposed sites for a new stadium include the Southwest Bypass and downtown near the Marriott Hotel. The Southwest Bypass location would be more accessible to outlying areas, while the downtown location would be within walking distance for fans.

The Sand Gnats' lease with the city for use of Grayson runs out after the 2000 season, which is what has prompted talks about the team's future in Savannah.

The Professional Baseball Agreement, which governs the relationship between the major leagues and the minor leagues, has a checklist of standards that minor league ballparks have to comply with.

Sand Gnats general manager Nick Brown said the list covers everything from lighting in the outfield to the width of the lockers in the clubhouse.

Mr. Brown said Grayson was grandfathered in before the specifications took effect in 1991.

But he added, "We're going to be forced to make those changes in the next decade, or build a new ballpark."

Hickory, N.C., which opened L.P. Frans Stadium in 1993, built the stadium for $4.2 million and used a combination of public and private financing. The city provided a $1.1 million loan, which is being repaid through the lease and a percentage of ticket sales, concessions and parking.

Charleston, S.C., built Joseph P. Riley Jr. Park for $19.8 million. The cost was high because the stadium was built on an old landfill site and methane gas had to be cleared out.

The city paid for the stadium by selling certificates of participation, which are similar to municipal bonds.

Mr. Monahan said voters in Savannah in the past have been "very receptive to recreational and economic development. A ballpark would be a little bit of both."


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