Macon-Bibb County Mayor Robert Reichert says it’s time to gauge county officials’ interest in having a minor league baseball team return to Macon.
Reichert, along with a group of Macon-Bibb officials, business and community leaders, spent two days this week meeting with city leaders in the South Carolina cities of Greenville and Columbia about how minor league ballparks are faring there. The South Carolina trip comes after a feasibility study earlier this year concluded that Macon-Bibb could support a Class A baseball team.
Reichert said he would like to “take the temperature” of Macon-Bibb commissioners and see whether they’re in favor of moving forward. One option could be to put out a request for proposals to see if a developer is interested in a mixed-used project that features a baseball stadium as its centerpiece.
“It’s kind of like going fishing,” Reichert said. “Maybe we ought to drop a line and see if we get a bite.”
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The feasibility study, done by B&D Venues, projects a 5,000-seat stadium in Macon would cost $38 million, not including land acquisition, parking or off-site infrastructure. The firm’s top two rated sites for a stadium included Mid City Square off Second Street and an area off Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Plum Street. The Washington, D.C.-based firm estimated that over a 30-year period, a new minor league stadium could generate about $171 million in economic activity and $176 million in wages.
If the vote on the feasibility study is any indication, whether Macon-Bibb will pursue a minor league team could be a close vote. Commissioners voted 5-4 in October to approve the $50,000 study, and some officials have said they have reservations about spending a large amount of public money to lure a team to town.
Commissioner Al Tillman, who was on the South Carolina trip, said he was impressed by the impact a downtown stadium, which opened in 2006, has had on Greenville.
“The longest serving African-American on the Greenville City Council (Lillian Flemming) said she saw baseball do something that none of us thought about, and that’s grow economic development through housing and jobs,” Tillman said.
Before the arrival of a minor league team there, some Greenville officials said too much attention was paid on a downtown that many people viewed unfavorably, Tillman said.
“We listened to these folks say that’s no longer the case,” Tillman said. “The young folks, seniors, college students — everyone is saying ‘let’s go downtown, that’s where the entertainment is, the action and tourism is.’”
Commissioner Gary Bechtel, who also was on the trip, said Macon-Bibb should reach out to potential team ownership groups and find out more about developers’ interest.
“If we commit to using funds, it has to be contingent on development around that area that will develop the tax base and attract jobs for people that live around there,” he said.
Greenville, Columbia use different methods to attract team, investment
Like Macon, the city of Greenville also lost an Atlanta Braves affiliate team about a decade ago. But Greenville was quickly able to attract a new team — the Greenville Drive — that was willing to pay for a new $15 million stadium. Since losing the Macon Braves in 2002 after failing to upgrade Luther Williams Field, Macon has briefly been home to several teams. Independent minor league baseball teams Macon Music and Macon Peaches each lasted one year while the Macon Pinetoppers, a summer collegiate league team, lasted two seasons.
Greenville Mayor Knox White told The Telegraph last year that several teams competed to move to the city.
Greenville’s 5,700-seat stadium is surrounded by condominiums, office and retail space, and restaurants. The team’s owners partnered with local developers on the site.
“Had we just had a baseball stadium by itself, it would not be a catalyst,” White said. “It would be like so many other sports facilities — a dead zone.”
The growth around the site has trickled to other areas. White said Greenville officials were adamant that a developer would have to cover some of the costs that were part of the mixed-used development.
“It absolutely energized the surrounding area, and that’s not always the case with many cities that get enamored (with a sports team),” he said.
Alex Morrison, executive director of the Macon-Bibb County Urban Development Authority, said Greenville and the team were able to complete a deal that was mutually beneficial.
“There’s no such thing as a typical baseball deal, but theirs is particularly atypical in that the team built the stadium,” Morrison said.
With Macon’s downtown experiencing commercial and residential growth, he said a stadium that’s part of a mixed-used development could become another important cog.
“We have an urban core that has a great downtown scene and neighborhoods around it,” Morrison said. “(A minor league team) could accelerate and stimulate that growth.”
While Greenville had several teams battling to move there, the return of baseball to Columbia after it lost a team in 2004 took a a longer and different approach.
In April, the Columbia Fireflies, the city’s newest baseball franchise, held their debut game at a $37 million stadium that’s connected to planned large-scaled developments that could cover 180 acres. Columbia officials committed $30 million of the stadium’s cost while Atlanta-based investment company Hardball Capital contributed the remaining $7 million, according to The State newspaper.
The idea for the stadium in Columbia came from a developer who said a multi-purpose recreation facility — one that could be used for various sports, concerts and events — would be key to investment around the property, Reichert said.
The city was able to attract an estimated $350 million of private investment for a 32-acre commercial development around the stadium. There also are plans to build apartments for University of South Carolina students near the ballpark, Reichert said.
“We have to come back to Macon ... and see if we can identify a large economic development project and whether that project might also be catalyzed by a multi-purpose recreation venue,” he said.
For Reichert, the trip was a reminder of why a vibrant downtown is important to an area.
“One picture is worth a thousand words, and walking around downtown Greenville and seeing what has happened here, not just because of the baseball stadium … (but) seeing an attractive downtown that acts as an economic driver for the entire region has been eye-opening,” he said.
Information from The Telegraph archives was used in this report.