PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The new owners of the Pawtucket Red Sox are hoping to emulate some of the most successful franchises in Minor League Baseball as they pursue a 10,000-seat stadium in downtown Providence.
James Skeffington, one of the team’s co-owners, said Tuesday he is looking at projects in Durham, N.C., Charlotte, N.C., Toledo, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, all cities that have built new stadiums or made significant renovations in recent years.
“The trend seems to be to create urban and downtown ballparks,” Skeffington, a prominent local attorney, told WPRI.com. “People want a facility they can walk to from work.”
Skeffington said a “ballpark estimate” for the cost of the proposed stadium on the lot of 200 Dyer Street would be between $60 million and $70 million and would be paid for by the team’s owners. But he did say the team would need some type of public support from both the state and the city, although he indicated it’s too soon to say when a proposal will be released.
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The team’s plan is to provide the right amenities and design to attract new fans while also spurring economic development in the city’s downtown. Skeffington said he wants to build a ballpark that has more common meeting areas for fans to gather and watch a game at an affordable price.
He pointed to the Durham Bulls, the franchise made famous by a 1988 movie featuring Kevin Costner, as one of the models for what the owners want to do in Providence. Durham Bulls Athletic Park was built in 1995, but underwent $20 million in renovations last year, which included a 5,000-square-foot luxury box behind home plate, improved concession stands, new video displays and better access for fans, according to a report in the News & Observer. They set a franchise record for attendance in 2014, according to Baseball America.
There’s another reason Skeffington likes Durham, a city of 245,000. Its largest employer is Duke University and the Duke University Health System, which includes the college’s medical and nursing schools as well as its research work. He said the medical school at Brown University as well as the new University of Rhode Island and Rhode Island College nursing center give Providence the chance to mirror Durham.
“Places like Durham have truly blossomed,” Skeffington said. He said having the right entertainment options downtown will help Providence’s education and medical institutions attract more employees.
Skeffington said Toledo’s Fifth Third Field, home of the Toledo Mud Hens, is considered another model for the PawSox owners, in part because of its location. The stadium, which opened in 2002, is housed in the heart of the city’s downtown. It hosted the AAA all-star game in 2006 and was called “one of the greatest urban field of dreams in the nation,” by the website BaseballPilgrimages.com.
Of the newer stadiums, Charlotte’s BB&T Park and El Paso’s Southwest University Park are among Minor League Baseball’s top success stories.
The Charlotte Knights began playing in their $54-million stadium last year and instantly went from having one of the worst attendance records in the International League – when the team played in Fort Mill, S.C. – to having the best attendance in all of Minor League Baseball when it opened its downtown park.
The El Paso Chihuahuas built their downtown field on the site of what was once City Hall at a cost of about $72 million, according to the El Paso Times. The team finished 10th in Minor League Baseball in attendance last year. Baseball Digest called the stadium the best new ballpark of 2014.
The stadiums in both Charlotte and El Paso received significant public subsidies.
In Charlotte, the city contributed $7.25 million in hotel taxes, $8 million in infrastructure improvements and a $1-a-year lease on property worth more than $20 million, according to Charlotte Magazine. That was after the owners said they weren’t going to seek the city’s help. The city of El Paso paid for – and owns – the entire stadium.
“There’s not a ballpark I know that didn’t receive some type of public support, substantial public support,” Skeffington said.
To be sure, all of the franchises Skeffington wants to model posted better attendance records than the PawSox did at McCoy Stadium in 2014. Charlotte drew 687,715 fans. Durham brought in 533,033. PawSox attendance has slid by 25% over the last decade, from 688,421 in 2005 to 515,665 last season, according to the league.
Although McCoy Stadium still posts attendance records in the top 15 of the 176 teams at all levels of Minor League Baseball, the PawSox are due for an upgrade. Minor league teams have built 58 new stadiums since 2000. McCoy opened in the 1940s and underwent renovations in 1999, adding about 4,000 seats.
If the new owners can reach agreements with the state and city, Skeffington said he’d like to break ground on the project by November and have the team move in for the beginning of the 2017 season. But he acknowledged that the 2018 season is probably more realistic.
“The sooner the better for our fans who would like to see a new ballpark,” he said.Dan McGowan ( firstname.lastname@example.org ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan