Ron Morris

May 9, 2014

MORRIS: Charlotte stadium a model to emulate

WHEN THE FAN first arrives at his seat along the third-base line in beautiful BB&T Ballpark, he or she cannot help but be captivated by the stunning view of the Charlotte skyline.

WHEN THE FAN first arrives at his seat along the third-base line in beautiful BB&T Ballpark, he or she cannot help but be captivated by the stunning view of the Charlotte skyline. Then the sun goes down, and the scattered lights in the towering buildings make the view look loaded with bright stars.

Yet the spectacle is a small part of what professional baseball offers the city of Charlotte. The Charlotte Knights are open for business 70 days and nights throughout the spring and summer, offering that many dates where citizens can gather and socialize downtown.

“There’s a lot of buzz about this team,” says Dan Rajkowski, executive vice president of the Knights. “It brought family entertainment value back to the center city of Charlotte. That’s what we wanted to accomplish, and we’ve done that.”

It is precisely what the city of Columbia aims to gain when it opens a baseball stadium on the Bull Street property for the 2016 season. Columbia officials need go no farther than Charlotte to find a model to emulate.

Much like in Columbia, the city of Charlotte long has had much to offer sports fans with deep pockets. While Columbia has USC football and men’s basketball for those who can afford to join booster clubs and pay seat-licensing fees along with high ticket prices, Charlotte has the high-end cost of attending NFL and NBA games.

Now comes professional baseball, where $8 can gain general admission to a 10,200-seat stadium without a bad seat. A box seat goes for a modestly priced $14. Concessions seemed high, although the savory $11 signature barbeque platter from Queen City Q was worth the price, complete with macaroni and cheese as a side item.

Apartment buildings and condominiums are sprouting around the stadium, and an area once nothing more than vacant lots is heavy in foot traffic. Romare Bearden Park, located across South Mint Street beyond the right field wall, serves as a public gathering place before games. Occasionally, the club provides live music and entertainment in the park.

The club and city also expect restaurants and bars to move into the area surrounding the ballpark, offering less-expensive alternatives before and after games to those looking for an inexpensive night of entertainment.

Because it is situated in a bowl, light standards are barely visible until one gets within a block or so of the stadium. Walking a sidewalk outside, one would not know a baseball stadium exists inside the two-story brick building. With no disc jockey and an unobtrusive public address announcer, the atmosphere inside is refreshingly void of loud music and the unnecessary noise normally associated with minor league baseball.

That pleasant night at the ballpark seems to be the appeal for Charlotte residents, who through the opening 11 games at the new stadium lead all of minor league baseball with an average crowd of 9,300.

“It’s really transformed baseball in Charlotte,” says Scott Brown, the club’s general manager, “to be the hottest ticket in town, and these are some hot tickets.”

The new ballpark was a long time coming for Charlotte and the club, which for the past 24 years has played its home games 12 miles south of the city in Fort Mill. The club annually drew the fewest number of fans in the International League.

Talk of a downtown stadium began in earnest in 2005, and not until May 2012 did the city of Charlotte and Mecklenberg County acquire land and approve funding for the $54 million stadium.

Charlotte is among the last cities around the country to construct a new stadium for professional baseball. Joel Skinner, a former major league player and manager and now the manager of the Knights, says the stadium represents how far playing conditions have advanced over the past couple of decades.

Skinner recalls managing a Class A team in Columbus, Ga., in 1998 that was displaced from its stadium because the field was converted into a softball complex for the Atlanta Olympics. Instead, the club played its home games at Columbus State College.

“Now, there are all these nice ballparks scattered around the United States in these little alcoves,” Skinner says. “It’s really exciting. It really it is.”

Soon, Columbia will join the ranks.

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