It would be 'more than just a stadium'

"The one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It's been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again. Oh, people will come. People will most definitely come."

- Adaptation of speech from James Earl Jones as Terence Mann in Field of Dreams

A hundred years ago, young men in stiff suits stepped off trains in downtown Augusta with short pants in their suitcases and big-league dreams in their duffel bags.

At places like old Warren Park, where the Exchange Club Fairgrounds are now, aspiring talents such as Ty Cobb began professional careers on dusty sandlots and thick outfield grass, just a few hundred yards from the Savannah River.

A century later - as pro baseball in Augusta has evolved from the crude beginnings of Cobb to the living legend of Cal Ripken Jr. - the national pastime may be headed back downtown.

Ripken, the Hall-of-Fame owner of the Augusta GreenJackets, and mayor Deke Copenhaver have proposed a state-of-the-art, riverfront stadium to be built between 11th and 13th streets.

Supporters say the proposed Reynolds Street park - "something along the lines of Camden Yards (in Baltimore)," according to the mayor - would take into account Augusta's rich baseball history and would be a year-round point of pride.

"We're looking at developing the type of ballpark that pays homage to the history of baseball here, which is natural to downtown Augusta," Copenhaver said.

The projected $20 million, 5,000-seat ballpark would be constructed just a few blocks from the old location of Warren Park, where Cobb and the Tourists began playing as a charter member of the original Sally League in 1904.

"Baseball has such a great history, and Augusta celebrates its baseball history as well as any place," Ripken said a few weeks ago. "The fact that professional baseball has been a part of Augusta for over 100 years is special and something that all members of this community should take great pride in."

All across the country, baseball is being moved back into city centers via multi-use stadiums. They are expected to revitalize surrounding areas and spark additional development, and in most identifiable cases, they have.

Supporters of Augusta's new stadium, which likely would work in conjunction with the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame and Botanical Gardens, are confident a Savannah River park would do wonders for downtown.

"It would be more than just a stadium. It would be an economic engine," said Ripken, who is being inducted into Cooperstown today. "I'd love to see downtown Augusta revitalized, to see the kind of energy it could bring downtown like some other cities are experiencing."

Augusta's Downtown Stadium Exploratory Committee visited Greenville, S.C., in May and traveled to Greensboro, N.C., and Durham, N.C., last week, where, in each case, centrally-located ballparks have become community destinations.

Even on a slow night at those parks, people file out of nearby corporate offices before the games and fill up nearby street cafes afterward. The cities' skylines overlook lush outfield grass or provide panoramic backdrops.

Everywhere you look, it seems another building is going up or being refurbished.

"It was a tremendous experience to see what other areas have done in allowing baseball to generate economic development," said state representative Quincy Murphy, a committee member. "It offers so many things for so many different people. If we can do that, and include something for everybody, I can see our community growing by leaps and bounds."

But, as expected for such an undertaking, there are questions and concerns.

Critics have expressed doubts about parking, congestion, funding, cost and the future of the GreenJackets' current home, Lake Olmstead Stadium, which is just 12 years old.

The stadium committee is in the process of selecting an independent consulting firm to conduct a feasibility study, which will examine nearly all possible details. The study, entitled the Downtown Stadium Impact and Revitalization Plan, is expected to highlight any potential problems and outline how the park would affect the entire district.

"Baseball's a great sport and I think it's a good idea. I'm just not sold on the cost and the location yet," said commissioner Marion Williams, who indicated he would wait for the study's results to form any further opinion. "I'm not sure it's right to put it downtown in a more congested space, where we're already limited with that area. It would create some traffic problems, if nothing else."

If the feasibility study is favorable, voters next year likely would have to approve a public-private funding venture with Ripken Baseball.

"Every place we've seen has been successful and has overcome the naysayers," Copenhaver said. "Of course there are always going to be concerns, but the one message we've heard continually is, 'Now that we're doing it, no one thinks it's a bad idea.'"

Copenhaver said Georgia governor Sonny Perdue is "fully committed" to the idea of a stadium working in synergy with the Riverwalk area and the adjacent gardens, which closed last month.

Supporters are optimistic that if all goes accordingly, Augusta could secure the land from the state next year and begin designs on the park, which would bring baseball downtown within three years.

"We feel that this potentially is a very important step in downtown's development. Anything that brings more people into the city, we see that as beneficial," said Barry White, president of Augusta's Convention & Visitors Bureau.

If they build it

The intent of the project is "to improve civic value" by turning an under utilized six-block area into a vibrant year-round destination for residents, visitors and businesses, according to the city's request for proposal.

That certainly was the case in Durham, where Bulls Athletic Park was a major player in bringing the area back from stagnation over the course of a decade, according to team ownership.

"A baseball stadium really is a unique facility in its ability to drive creative energy for the public," said Mike Hill, vice president of Capitol Broadcasting Company, which owns Durham's 12-year-old stadium. "It really is a good argument for economic development."

Estimates of a stadium's potential economic impact downtown won't be known until the study comes back.

The GreenJackets are on pace to draw approximately 190,000 in attendance this season, and recently built ballparks in similar areas have sparked 100 to 200 percent increases in attendance. So the downtown area could expect an influx of some 300,000 people throughout the course of a baseball season.

That wouldn't include other events, such as concerts and baseball tournaments, for example. Ripken Baseball owns the Class A short-season Aberdeen (Md.) IronBirds and usually attracts more than 100 other events a year.

Funding

The stadium's price tag is projected in the $20 to $25 million neighborhood. It would be paid for by a public-private venture with Ripken Baseball.

The public financing component likely would be general obligation bonds, Copenhaver said, which would have to be approved by voters.

"We're looking at funding in a way that would be fiscally responsible and not be too much of a burden to taxpayers," Copenhaver said.

Augusta commissioners in November would have to vote to put the referendum for bonds on the February ballot for the presidential primaries.

To gain the commissioners' and people's confidence, the upcoming study likely will have to prove that a new park would be the best use for prime real estate.

"I'm not really into baseball. There are other things I feel would be more important," said Mayor Pro Tem Betty Beard, whose District 1 would be home to the proposed stadium. "But that doesn't mean I'm not going to be supportive."

Copenhaver said the feasibility study, originally estimated to cost $50,000 to $75,000 out of the state budget, now is being privately financed.

Parking and safety

One of the biggest concerns is parking. There are questions as to the availability of parking and what, if anything, it may cost, particularly on weekend evenings.

According to a parking analysis conducted by Atlanta-based Carl Walker Engineering two years ago, nearly 14,000 spaces are available in the downtown area east of 13th Street, according to Margaret Woodward, executive director of the Downtown Development Authority.

A vast majority of those were off-street spots in lots owned by businesses or private entities.

George Patty, executive director of Augusta Planning and Zoning, said a 1996 study showed approximately 4,500 spaces available within a 12- to 15-minute walk of the proposed site.

Supporters say parking won't be as big a problem as some think because visitors would be arriving hours after peak occupancy, which occurs just after noon on business days and takes up less than half of all downtown spaces.

"We feel like we don't have a parking problem, per se, but that we have a parking management problem," Woodward said. "We need to maximize those off-street spaces, because we've got a lot of lots. We feel like if it's managed properly, there won't be any problems."

In Greensboro, there are only about 2,500 spaces within a quarter-mile of the park, "and it hasn't really been a problem," said Cooper Brantley, one of the Grasshoppers' primary owners.

In Greenville, another South Atlantic League team, there are very few dedicated spaces. Visitors there sometimes pay "a reasonable amount" in the $3 to $5 range, and some use a shuttle service from further parking facilities, Patty said.

Augusta would need the same kind of cooperation from downtown owners of off-street spaces and lots, Patty said.

Copenhaver points to the annual Border Bash, which he said draws around 20,000 people to the same area and doesn't cause significant parking issues. A stadium would draw some 5,000 people on game days.

Woodward said a committee currently is working on a parking recommendation for the proposal.

Ripken Baseball would make sure all potential parking areas would be well-lit and well-secured, vice president Jeff Eiseman said.

Garden spot

The proposed site is owned by the state and run by the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame and Botanical Gardens, which shut down in June after years of under-use.

Supporters argue the multi-use stadium would all but insure the Gardens' survival and would provide a one-of-a-kind attraction.

"It would be developed in conjunction with the Gardens, essentially becoming a park within a park," Copenhaver said. "There is not another stadium development like that in the United States. I think it would be a great drawing card to Augusta, for people to have something no one else has."

Power of people

Since the 19th century, baseball stadiums have united American communities in sport and leisure.

The famous ballparks of the early 1900s, which usually were located in a city's center, have served as historical landmarks and places where memorable characters roamed in a bygone era.

Augusta was one of those places.

Former New York Yankee Bill Johnson, who died last year, played minor league ball in Augusta in the 1930s and made his home here for decades.

"There wasn't a greater city for baseball anywhere than right here," Johnson told The Augusta Chronicle several years ago. "There have been so many great players and teams over the years, and the fans were always great supporters of baseball."

Now, downtown ballparks are coming back as sculptural icons in city skylines and anchors of development for communities who have taken the risk.

And there are risks.

"You're always going to have naysayers and you're always going to have risk involved, especially dealing with public dollars," said Alan Delisle, assistant city manager for Economic Development of Durham, which is thriving behind its stadium. "What it comes down to is, 'Do you want a vibrant downtown or do you want the alternative, which is more and more buildings just sitting empty?'"

In Augusta, stadium supporters hope the same thing can happen downtown as has occurred in many other places.

In the end, if all goes accordingly, the people will decide.

Reach Steve Sanders at (706) 823-3216 or steven.l.sanders@augustachronicle.com.

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