Play Ball

In cities across Georgia, minor league baseball teams are having a major league economic impact.
Big Swing: Gwinnett Brave Thomas David Cunningham at Coolray Field

Hank Aaron’s pursuit of Babe Ruth’s home run record didn’t start at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. It began years earlier in Eau Claire, Wis., and Jacksonville, Fla., in small minor-league stadiums. The locker rooms were typically tiny – a nail usually served as the hanger in the locker stall – and the lighting on the field was less than adequate.

But nearly every man who has made his way to the major leagues traveled the same road. Across the country, batters, pitchers and catchers – they all had to serve an apprenticeship in the minor leagues. Teams figured if a player could survive his time in the minor leagues where conditions were austere, he might be OK when called upon to play in the big leagues.

That same path to the major leagues still exists today. Minor league baseball is very much alive in the United States. In 2014, there are 243 teams in 19 affiliated minor leagues. They compete in a variety of classifications, depending on the skill level and experience of the player, and are located in cities and towns of all sizes.

Four of those teams can be found in Georgia: the Triple-A Gwinnett Braves and the Single-A Rome Braves, Augusta GreenJackets and Savannah Sand Gnats. The Gwinnett Braves compete in the International League with players who are almost ready to become major leaguers. The other three teams are members of the South Atlantic League and are primarily made up of younger prospects and rookies.

“The four teams in Georgia are all really good franchises,” says Michael Dunn, general manager of the Rome Braves. “They’re in good markets, and they’re good organizations. That’s what minor league baseball is all about.”

In addition to preparing players for the major leagues, the minor league teams offer an economic impact on their communities. They provide part-time and full-time jobs, they purchase the goods and services of local suppliers and they offer an entertainment outlet.

“Minor league baseball is a huge asset for quality of life and well-being,” says Brinsley Thigpen, CEO of the Augusta Sports Council. “It’s perfect for the family, it’s not too expensive, it’s a fun thing … a healthy thing.

“Economically, people do travel to see the team or see people they know on the team,” she says. “There’s always an economic side to it, too.”

Gwinnett Braves

In Lawrenceville just north of Atlanta, the 10,427-seat Coolray Field is home to the Gwinnett Braves, known as the G-Braves to fans. Along with the standard ballfield seating, the stadium features 18 luxury suites. On sunny days, you’ll see fans who’ve paid the $5 general admission and spread out blankets to watch the game on a grassy hill beyond the outfield wall.

Right now, just beyond that wall sits an assortment of bulldozers and construction equipment. Slowly, buildings are emerging from the ground, part of the long-anticipated $100-million mixed-use development.

The Village at Coolray Field will include 200 luxury residential flats, 53,400 square feet of retail space, 20,000 square feet of office space and a 130-room hotel. It was all part of the proposal that in 2008 helped lure the Braves from Richmond, Va., where they had been for 43 years, to the northeast Atlanta suburbs of Gwinnett County.

The first residential units are expected to be ready for the 2015 baseball season. Each comes with a view of the field, giving it the possibility of becoming a minor-league version of Chicago’s Wrigley Field. Residents will be able to sit on their balconies and watch the game or entertain guests.

The start of the development was slowed by the economic downturn. “The fan base was very affected by the economy,” says Gwinnett Braves General Manager North Johnson. “The conversation [became] ‘Do we make a car payment, a house payment or buy season tickets?’ And the banks didn’t want to loan any money, especially for a project as ambitious as this one. It was a perfect storm, and we wound up scrapping our plans and putting them all on the back burner.”

Since the stadium opened in 2009, the G-Braves have had a positive impact on the area, and that will only grow once The Village at Coolray Field is complete. The club creates more than 200 seasonal jobs and is a boon for other businesses in the area.

“There are 13 other teams that come in to play games, and they’ll stay in a local hotel, they’ll eat in our local restaurants and they’ll use a local charter bus service,” Johnson says.

Surveys have shown that most of the team’s core fans come from a 25-mile radius of the stadium. The club aggressively promotes the team in the community, using its mascot “Chopper.” The park also hosts company outings, parties and concerts. Once the mixed-use development is complete, it’s expected to become a vibrant hub for the surrounding community.

“It’s been five years in the making, and it’s exciting that it’s taking place now,” Johnson says.

Augusta GreenJackets

The Augusta GreenJackets hope to be in the ballpark business very soon. The club has plans to move into a new stadium, located on the other side of the Savannah River in North Augusta, S.C., in April 2016, pending final approval from the North Augusta City Council.

The stadium is part of a proposed $160-million mixed-use economic development project that includes plans for a conference center, parking deck, restaurant, retail space and apartments, in addition to a stadium on a 27-acre tract.

“When this is done and done right, it will create jobs and recreational opportunities,” GreenJackets General Manager Jeff Eiseman says.

The GreenJackets have been playing at Lake Olmstead Stadium since 1995. Built on the site of the old Heaton Stadium, the facility was upgraded in 2005. But the stadium, which seats 4,822, remains one of the smallest in the South Atlantic League.

“The new stadium would show you that companies want to go where there’s critical mass,” Eiseman says. “It reels in the community. Our current venue is more challenging. A new venue could be used 365 days a year and bring in more events.”

The GreenJackets were originally looking to build a stadium on the Georgia side of the Savannah River, however, the team’s preferred location, the former Georgia Golf Hall of Fame’s Botanical Gardens, is now owned by Georgia Regents University.

But the team still needed room for a bigger stadium, so their eyes moved east over the state line. The North Augusta location is not without controversy – there have been concerns regarding traffic and use of public funds, as well as how it will impact the surrounding neighborhood.

The new North Augusta site was approved by the city council in November 2013. The $144-million project will feature a 200-room hotel and conference center and several restaurants, along with residential, retail and office space. The stadium will be next to the 13th Street Bridge, which connects North Augusta with downtown Augusta.

Although the site will be in South Carolina, Thigpen views it as a positive for the city of Augusta.

“I see it as a lateral move for the community,” Thigpen says. “From the recreational sporting event [perspective], it’s a good thing because it gives us another venue. Now people will be able to enjoy all North Augusta has to offer and all that Augusta has to offer. With the new hotels and restaurants, visitors will be able to enjoy both sides of the river.”

As for Lake Olmstead Stadium, it would continue to be a part of the community after the GreenJackets move. Georgia Regents University is considering leasing or purchasing the property since its collegiate teams already play their home games there.

Augusta’s minor league history began in 1885 when they were known as the Browns. In 1904, they were reincarnated as the Tourists and became a charter member of the South Atlantic League, commonly referred to as the Sally League.

One of the players on that team was Ty Cobb, who hit .237 in his first season as a professional. He came back the next season, hit .326 and won the batting title. By the end of the 1905 season, Cobb was sold to Detroit, where he went on to have a Hall of Fame career and retire with the highest batting average in Major League Baseball history.

Augusta had a team almost every year until 1963, when the New York Yankees moved their affiliate out of the city. Pittsburgh relocated its affiliate team to Augusta in 1988, and the city has hosted a team ever since. The GreenJackets are currently a farm team for the San Francisco Giants.

Most fans who attend the games in Augusta are from the neighboring counties and communities, which is why the GreenJackets try to reach out to local businesses, organizations and service groups.

“It’s important to ingrain yourself in the community,” Eiseman says. “You’ve really got to be involved.”

With Fort Gordon nearby, there’s a strong military presence in the community, and the GreenJackets are soldier-friendly. The Salute to Soldier program offers military families four box seats to a specific game and $40 in concession vouchers, and the team recognizes an active or retired member of the military and their family at each game.

Savannah Sand Gnats

Jason Freier, CEO of Hardball Capital, the owner of the Sand Gnats, wants to see the Savannah franchise revitalized in the same manner as another minor league team owned by his group in Fort Wayne, Ind. He wants a new stadium, and he wants it in downtown.

Freier sees the success Fort Wayne has had and believes it can be duplicated in Savannah. Fort Wayne opened a new stadium in 2009 and has since averaged 25 sellouts per season and outdrawn 56 of the 59 Single-A teams, as well as 26 of 30 Double-A teams and a third of Triple-A teams.

Savannah recently approved a feasibility study for a new stadium. If the project gets the green light, the Sand Gnats could be in a new facility as soon as 2017. Freier says he would guarantee the city that the team would be there for at least 30 years.

“We think the economic impact could be five times or 10 times what it is now, if we partner with the city,” Freier says. He points to the success experienced in Fort Wayne, which draws 130,000 for non-baseball events such as concerts, business meetings and weddings.

The team currently employs 10 full-time and 140 part-time employees. Freier says a new facility would make the numbers similar to those in Fort Wayne, which has 36 full-time and 550 part-time employees.

The Sand Gnats play in Grayson Stadium, which opened in 1927 at one end of Daffin Park southeast of the city’s downtown core. Although it gets high marks for nostalgia, Grayson Stadium is limited in terms of corporate entertainment and can only be used for baseball. While the city of Savannah, which oversees Grayson Stadium, has made upgrades over the years, including improvements to the stands and parking, technology upgrades are still a challenge.

Some want the Sand Gnats to stay in Grayson Stadium, but the owners say that for the Sand Gnats to remain in Savannah, they must move to a new stadium. Freier says the cost of renovations to Grayson would be more than building a new facility.

A proposed waterfront stadium just east of River Street could be the solution. In 2006, a real estate investment firm purchased the land with plans for the mixed-use Savannah River Landing. When the recession hit the plans got shelved, but not before utilities and streets were laid out and the $14-million Riverwalk was extended to its door. Now, Hardball Capital has its eye on the parcel and is suggesting a $30-million new stadium.

“Mixed use and planning is one part, and the other part is being close to the urban core,” Freier says about the proposed development. “Savannah has a historic walkable downtown. There really is a downtown there. Projects like this that have been the most successful have been in a downtown area. We talked about moving to the suburbs, but there’s not much interest.”

If a new stadium is not approved, there is concern that the Sand Gnats may move elsewhere, possibly Columbia, S.C. In early 2014, Hardball Capital entered into negotiations with Columbia to build a new stadium downtown.

“We very much want to keep a team in Savannah,” Freier says. “If Savannah works with us to find a permanent ballpark solution there, we are more than willing to purchase another team so we can have teams in both Savannah and Columbia.”

For now, the Sand Gnats have a variety of promotions, from two-for-one Tuesdays to postgame fireworks. And in an effort to reach the next generation of fans, children 12 and under can join the Sand Gnats Kid’s Club, which comes with a ticket to every home game and other assorted goodies.

Rome Braves

There was little doubt that Rome was going to embrace the Braves franchise when it decided to move from Macon. Northwest Georgia is unabashedly Braves Country, and the team has en-joyed tremendous community support since it showed up in 2003.

“[State Mutual Stadium] was a perfect scenario for the way a public-private partnership should be,” says General Manager Michael Dunn, who came with the team from Macon. A 2001 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) for $15 million helped support stadium construction, with Rome-based State Mutual Insurance Co. paying $250,000 for the naming rights for 18 years.

The stadium was built away from the city, and businesses were expected to fill in the surrounding 30 acres, which includes 18 undeveloped outparcels. That progression was halted by the recession, but the infrastructure has been developed and businesses are beginning to show interest. The Bella Roma Grill shares the parking lot at State Mutual Stadium. A doctor’s office is under construction, and a shopping plaza is being discussed.

Lisa Smith, executive director of the Greater Rome Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, says the trails around the ballpark are tied into the Urban Riverfront project in the downtown area. If someone’s attending a game, they can walk from the Town Green park nestled next to the Oostanaula River to the baseball stadium without crossing a single street.

“The stadium is an entertainment mecca,” Dunn says. “It’s not your typical Class-A environment. Ownership takes great pride in the development side and the amenity side.”

The park includes 14 luxury suites, state-of-the-art audio-visual technology and a full-service restaurant. There are flat screen televisions located throughout the park. Last year a new video board was added to the outfield.

“The attention has been consistent,” Dunn says. “The first few years were grandiose. We enjoyed an extended honeymoon period. We continue to look for ways to improve the game experience for the fans.”

The R-Braves refuse to take their fans for granted and offer a variety of promotions each day, from buy-one-get-one to 50-cent hot dogs. For adults, there’s a Miller Lite Marina in the left-field corner that features all-you-can-eat and drink tickets. And kids get the chance to run the bases after every Sunday home game.

The Future

Although the addition of other minor league teams in Georgia appears unlikely right now, the most probable candidates would be Macon, Warner Robins and Columbus.

Macon was home of the Braves franchise for 14 years before it left for Rome. The Braves were frustrated by the unwillingness of the city to make needed improvements to Luther Williams Field, which was built in 1929 and is the second-oldest minor league park in the country. Attitudes may be changing. The Macon-Bibb County Urban Development Authority heard an informal presentation in October 2013 about exploring the cost of bringing a team back to the city.

Warner Robins, located about 20 miles south of Macon, funded a feasibility study in 2013 that revealed the city could support a Single-A team. National Sports Services suggested a 5,000-seat ballpark modeled after the one built in Rome that would be funded via a public-private partnership with local governments. The city of Warner Robins encouraged pursuit of a team, but has yet to commit to any funding.

Columbus has hosted several teams over the years, most recently the Catfish from 2006 to 2008, a Tampa Bay affiliate that moved to Bowling Green, Ky., in 2009.

Whatever the future holds, this year’s baseball season is around for another few weeks. Get out and support these Georgia teams – and cities. Who knows, you might just catch a glimpse of the next Hank Aaron.

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