- The Washington Times - Friday, May 19, 2000

The new downtown ballpark features four dozen luxury suites, a short left-field porch tempting sluggers, an outfield party deck and state of the art digital scoreboard.

A description of the Houston Astros' new Enron Field? Nope. Try AutoZone Park, the new $80.5 million home of the Class AAA Memphis Redbirds.

With the building boom slowing down in the four major professional leagues, minor league baseball has become ground zero for stadium architects, construction firms and, most important, team owners eager to maximize revenues. Eight parks have opened this spring. With at least another 10 on deck for 2001 and perhaps that many again in 2002, the minors are entering their biggest building boom in history.

"It's the convergence of a lot of things. Attendance is still way up, a lot of stadiums found they needed to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act and found that building new was a better way to go. And of course, owners want to modernize and provide the amenities that are now in demand," said Martin DiNitto, director of minor league baseball design for HNTB Inc., a Kansas City-based company active in sports architecture.

"Cities have also found that projects at this level, compared to the major leagues, are very doable and can actually be effective in promoting real downtown development," DiNitto said.

But far from the utilitarian, aluminum-bench parks that began to sprout up all over suburban landscapes in the early 1990s, today's newcomers are major league in nearly everything but size. Downtown locations, Camden Yards-like brickwork, corporate naming rights, brew pubs, club seats and full slates of luxury boxes are now seen as mandatory for minor league parks, even for short-season Class A teams.

With those demands for amenities have come vastly increased costs. A new stadium in Round Rock, Texas, for the Nolan Ryan-owned Class AA Express cost $25 million to build, nearly two and a half times the cost of the 6-year-old Prince George's Stadium in Bowie. The $80.5 million spent in Memphis is close to the $110 million spent eight years ago to build Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

Long-term financing, however, has helped keep most ticket prices under $10.

"These places are now really all miniature big league parks," said Jim Ferguson, spokesman for the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, the umbrella group for the affiliated minor leagues.

The affiliated minors are far from alone in the building boom. The independent Northern and Atlantic Leagues, now proven in their ability to survive against much better established competition, also are constructing new stadiums nearly as fast as land and financing deals can be put together.

Like their major league counterparts, most of the new buildings are heavily financed by public money. But unlike the major leagues, the minors have not found much resistance from either politicians or voters in obtaining that money.

"Politicians from all over are visiting parks in the neighboring cities and are deciding they don't want to be the one left without a new park," said Frank Boulton, chief executive of the Atlantic League and former co-owner of the Prince William Cannons. "We're all getting a lot more creative in our financing to cover the costs of building a new park. But it's still a lot easier to come up with $20 million than it is $200 million."

Minor league baseball, with its proven ability to draw families, has been effective in recent years as a magnet for downtown development. Oldsmobile Park in Lansing, Mich., home of the Class AA Lugnuts, for example generated nearly $4 million in nearby commercial development its first year of existence due in large part to the numerous fairs and festivals on non-game days.

Camden Yards similarly has helped bring tourists and some development to downtown Baltimore. But with expectations sky high because of the state's nine-figure investment in the stadium, many civic leaders and economists feel the facility is just reshuffling entertainment money that would have been spent elsewhere.

"A major league project is often the only thing in a development effort or by the far the largest thing. Minor league projects, conversely, have been designed a lot more to blend in a larger project," DiNitto said. "Bringing 400,000 people a year to a downtown area for a one-time investment of $10 million is not a bad use of public money. You don't have that kind of opportunity cost at the next level."

Locally, a $25.7 million stadium for the expansion Aberdeen Arsenal of the Atlantic League, a project led by Orioles third baseman Cal Ripken, will be combined with a Ripken youth baseball camp. The complex also will host the annual Babe Ruth League Cal Ripken Division World Series beginning next year.

Although the minors are enjoying a boom period with a number of economic factors pointed heavily in their favor, simple fan demand is the heart of all the activity. Minor league attendance began to surge 10 years ago, in large part because of soaring ticket prices in the majors, and the NAPBL reached 33 million attendance in 1994.

But far from a bump helped along by a players strike in the majors that year, fans have continued to flock to the minors. NAPBL attendance has topped 35 million the last two years and a new record is expected this year. Both the Northern and Atlantic Leagues posted record attendance marks last year.

"Every project is different, but the one constant in all of this is the public's demand for baseball and more affordable family entertainment," Boulton said.

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