Ballpark Memo 

click to enlarge back05_braves_100.jpg

To: Scott Bass (Style Weekly, et al.)
Re: Your letter about our role in the Braves fiasco (News & Features, Jan. 23)
From: Gary Armstrong, Richmond Ballpark Initiative

First, on behalf of the Richmond Ballpark Initiative, I would like to thank you for your letter. We really haven't received much mail in the past few years. Using the magazine and the Internet to deliver your personal message would make the mayor very proud! Seriously, we appreciate your willingness to let us respond. Heck, we even agree with some of your comments.

We were not surprised when the Atlanta Braves announced they'd decided to take their AAA club to Gwinnett County, Ga. However, we're just as disappointed as everyone else is in Richmond. Those who spent any time trying to understand the mission of the volunteer group we formed back in 2003 knew we had two primary goals. The first was to keep the Braves in Richmond with a new ballpark, and the second was to leverage that ballpark and make it an "anchor" for a larger, mixed-use "ballpark district." That was the vision.

It wasn't a unique idea then, and it certainly isn't now. Similar developments continue to spring up across the country. We can debate the merits of our Shockoe Bottom focus, but the basic concept has proved to be a viable one. Forward-thinking open minds, real engagement by the city and business leaders, the media, and other stakeholders, and their collective willingness were needed to seriously consider this concept.

Your assertion that we did not anticipate all of the political lunacy that exists in our region is a valid point. The special-interest groups, leaders of the surrounding counties and, best of all, the mayor all had their different interests, and they paid little attention to what their primary tenant, the Richmond (Atlanta) Braves, wanted, needed and asked for. No better example was the ridiculous Fulton Gas Works proposal from the mayor. It is still amazing to reflect on how few people, including the media, would not listen to the Braves organization. Eventually, ignorance and ego overcame the Braves' generous patience.

Where your letter really loses some steam is the statement that the Braves were going to sign a 10-year lease on the $18 million bandage about to be affixed to The Diamond. I'm speaking of the huge tarp that was going to cover the entire upper deck because it had become obsolete.

Do you really think the Braves were going to sign up for 10 years of that? Have you been to Indianapolis, Louisville, Columbus, Norfolk or Durham? The Richmond Braves travel to those places ... several times a year. The Richmond Ballpark Initiative didn't have to show them what a real minor league ballpark looks and feels like or what it's like to walk across the street from the stadium to have dinner with the fans at a nice restaurant. If you or the Richmond Metropolitan Authority has a signed lease from someone in the Braves organization, please show me. The Braves not signing that lease in 2003 said volumes, and all of us, including the business community, government leaders and the fans, should have taken it to heart.

Critical to the conversation of ballparks and the future of minor-league baseball is the team's and owner's ability to turn a profit. Minor league baseball is a business with revenues and expenses. Owners should be expected to make a return on their investment. Most minor league ballparks built in the past 10 years create more revenue sources to pay rent, payroll, maintenance, etc. Lucrative naming rights and the sale of luxury boxes to corporations come much easier with state-of-the-art facilities, not one with a camouflaged upper deck. The Braves needed to grow their fan base and start making money at their AAA ballpark. The proposed "new and improved" Diamond did not have that potential, and the Braves knew it.

The many attractions in the newer stadiums make them enticing for all types of people, baseball fans and non-fans alike. Minor league baseball attracts perhaps more diverse a crowd than any other type of sporting event. It is a very important community asset, and we need to bring baseball back to Richmond ASAP.

For minor league baseball, the stadium has become the attraction, and the baseball, for many, has become secondary. If you research attendance figures for the minor league teams, you'll find it's not the teams having success on the field but the teams that have the newer-style ballpark in the right locations that attract the most people. The ballpark is an entertainment and economic-development engine. As our region moves forward with baseball, it is crucial that we keep that in mind.

Just this week Tulsa added itself to the growing list of cities that plan to follow the downtown baseball/development anchor model. Richmond now lags behind a list of former contemporaries such as Norfolk, Oklahoma City, Charlotte, Toledo, Syracuse, Buffalo, Columbus, Memphis and many others that have followed this model and prospered.

Yes, Scott, we do consider Richmond to be a Triple-A town, but Double-A will work if that is our next best option. As you said, it's where the best major league prospects are anyway.

We just need to do it right. As a first step, let's get some of our leaders (sans egos!) in a car or on a plane and go to a game at a newer ballpark in one of these other cities to experience what minor league baseball and the surrounding development is all about in the 21st century. Then let's get people, not just politicians, to the table, roll up our sleeves and do the right thing for our region. I don't know about you, Scott, but I know a few guys who are ready to jump in. S

Gary Armstrong is a local commercial banker and member of the Richmond Ballpark Initiative, a local nonprofit created to help identify the best site for a ballpark-anchored development downtown.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of
Style Weekly.



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