FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. (WNCN) – A contingent of city leaders from Fayetteville is boarding a bus to South Carolina Thursday afternoon. They are headed to a baseball game in Columbia.
Their goal: to learn about how a minor league baseball team and stadium could benefit their city.
The group plans to tour the new Spirit Communications Park and watch the Columbia Fireflies take on the Asheville Tourists. They’ll also meet with city leaders from Columbia to discuss the development of the stadium and what it has brought to the city.
For more than a year, Fayetteville city councilors have been studying the possibility of bringing a ballpark to their city in hopes of revitalizing the area.
The owner of the Columbia Fireflies, Jason Freier, tells CBS North Carolina that Thursday’s visit will be the third trip for city leaders from Fayetteville.
He says the Columbia site was modeled after another successful park in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Freier’s company, Hardball Capital, bought the Fort Wayne team in 2006. Freier says the company partnered with the City of Fort Wayne to build a new ballpark.
Freier says this moved baseball into the heart of downtown Fort Wayne. Councilors in Fayetteville are considering a downtown-based ballpark as well.
In the eight years since it’s been there, there’s been $250 million in development in and around the ballpark, Freier says. This includes mixed use including hotel, retail, residential, office and restaurant space.
It’s not just used for baseball. The stadium hosts 640 events every year, on average, according to Hardball Capital. Aside from baseball games, this includes concerts, football games, soccer matches, civic events and even weddings. The home plate serves as a finish line for a local marathon.
Back to Columbia, Freier says development is promising there as well.
Spirit Communications Park was just named as Ballpark of the Year for 2016 by Ballpark Digest.
The first pitch was thrown just this spring and already, $30 million worth of projects are now underway. This includes a 32-acre retail space, student housing, and the restoration of a historic building that will be turned into apartments.
Freier admits that “the state of the site is a bit of a detriment” due to the ongoing construction, but says development “is a good problem to have,” and within a few years will prove to be “a tremendous asset.”
The cost of the park was $37 million, Freier told CBS North Carolina. Of that, the city paid $29 million, but Freier added that over the 30-year lease, the team will cover the majority of the combined costs of construction, operation and maintenance improvements.
Freier say the taxpayer funding is “not an expenditure, it’s an investment” that will improve quality of life and catalyze development.
The park employs about 35 people year round, with about 500 part-time seasonal jobs, Freier said.
City officials from Fayetteville have taken their research on the road to other parks as well. Last year, they toured a multi-use stadium in the Houston suburb of Sugar Land, Texas. Closer to home, they also made trips to BB&T Ballpark in Charlotte and the Durham Bulls Athletic Park to see how their downtown attractions have helped local economies.
CBS North Carolina reporter Nate Rodgers will be traveling to Columbia, SC with the group from Fayetteville. Look for his reports starting at 5 p.m. and 11 p.m. on CBS North Carolina.