Minor league baseball

MORRIS: New stadium could revitalize Columbia’s downtown

January 9, 2014 

A LONG-AGO Durham Bulls player stood outside the gates of decrepit old Durham Athletic Park in the fall of 1980 and shook his head in dismay. “Ain’t gonna work,” he decried. “Ain’t gonna work.”

The former ballplayer had seen the downside of minor league baseball — tiny crowds and a disinterested community — for many years, and Durham’s eight-year absence from the game had not changed his mind. Minor-league baseball would not fly, he said.

Thirty-four years later, Durham serves as the model for how minor league franchises and cities can partner to provide affordable family entertainment while igniting a growth boon in a formerly desolate downtown area.

The old ballpark grew too small for the crowds, and a new $18.5 million stadium was opened in 1995. What once was a city area of vacant land and abandoned tobacco warehouses is a thriving shopping, eating and drinking locale that has fast become the “cool” place to go in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina.

Jason Freier, 43, is a smart guy with an undergraduate degree from Harvard and a Yale law degree. He is no fly-by-night, snake oil salesman. He also has great vision, and believes Columbia and the Bull Street property could become the next Durham.

“Minor league baseball is less about the baseball — and this hurts the baseball purist to hear this — and more about the experience,” Freier said this week. “What that means is that context is far more important than it is, even in major-league baseball. ... Providing a better experience is important no matter where you are. But it’s more important in minor-league baseball.”

Freier is the owner of minor league baseball teams in Fort Wayne, Ind., and in Savannah. He wants to be the owner of the next professional baseball team in Columbia, if he and the city can agree to finance and build a $35 million baseball stadium on the old State Hospital campus off Bull Street.

Freier is relatively new to the minor league baseball game, and that is a good thing for Columbia. He is representative of the new-age owner who, while admittedly fond of the game of baseball, is a businessman first and foremost.

You should understand that minor league baseball has changed over the past couple of decades, particularly during the time since the Capital City Bombers left Columbia following the 2004 season. Attendance at minor league baseball games has increased every year since 2005 and last season drew 41.5 million fans nationally.

That steady increase is the result primarily of a recognition by cities across the country that a new ballpark — 31 have been built since 2005 — can be the greatest catalyst to revitalizing a downtown area. Those parks have sprouted in Greensboro and Winston-Salem in North Carolina, Birmingham, Ala., and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Pa. Charlotte opens a new downtown stadium this spring.

Although Durham is considered the model for cities with minor league baseball, Columbia does not have to look far to see the benefits of constructing a stadium on the outskirts of downtown. Greenville, which opened Flour Field for the 2006 season, has realized a revitalization of the West End of downtown Greenville.

Freier, naturally, likes to use Fort Wayne as his example of how it can work. The Tin Caps are a Class A Midwest League affiliate of the San Diego Padres. They have averaged about 400,000 fans over a 70-game home season during the five years since Parkview Field opened.

Freier says fans repeatedly come to Fort Wayne games because it is affordable for families, with ticket prices as low as $5, and for the ballpark experience.

“We focus on the facility, customer service, the food,” says Freier, who believes signature concession items such as ample dumplings in Fort Wayne, bring fans back to the park.

“We want to keep the ticket prices low because we want the stadium to be packed,” Freier says. “A full stadium has lots of energy. People come to a full stadium because it’s exciting, they have a good time and they want to come back.”

The focus also is on year-round events at the park, according to Freier, who said Fort Wayne hosts more than 350 gatherings annually at the park, from road races that begin and end there to concerts to charity events.

The idea is to create foot traffic to the surrounding area. Freier and his partners at Atlanta-based Hardball Capital, spent nearly three years locating the franchise that best fit their criteria for revitalizing a downtown area. Fort Wayne has succeeded in that respect with restaurants, bars, retail shops and office buildings surrounding the stadium.

Freier says his company believes the same can happen in Columbia. If the stadium is built on the Bull Street property, Freier says minor league baseball will create enough foot traffic to hasten the progress of Bull Street development.

Columbia has sat on the sideline too many times while leaders in Charleston and Greenville have pushed through projects because they had great vision. Whether it was because USC was not on board, or because of the belief that public funding should not go toward such a project, or because city leaders could not recognize the benefits to an entire community, Columbia often has balked at progress.

The time has come for Columbia to share the same vision that Durham had in the 1980s, figure out a way to build a baseball stadium, bring professional baseball back and provide an economic boost and rejuvenation of a downtown area.

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