With shovels in dirt where one day home plate will be, the Charlotte Knights broke ground Friday on the team’s new stadium uptown.
The team plans to open BB&T Ballpark in spring 2014 – almost 25 years since minor league baseball was last played in Charlotte. The Knights now play just over the state line in Fort Mill, S.C.
Majority owner Don Beaver said he and his business partner, Bill Allen, have long wanted to return baseball to Charlotte.
“Our goal was always to bring baseball back to where it’s more accessible,” Beaver said during the groundbreaking ceremony. “That’s been our focus all along.”
Friday’s ceremony drew political, business and sports leaders from across the region, including Frances Crockett, former general manager of the Charlotte O’s, which for years played before fans in the old wooden stands of Crockett Park – near where the Lowe’s in South End now stands.
Even as many in the crowd celebrated the coming construction of a new ballpark in Third Ward, nearly all of the speakers spoke of the many challenges it took to get the project off the ground.
The $54 million ballpark is being built on county-owned land that’s bordered by Mint, Fourth and Graham streets and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
The site was selected in late 2005 in a complicated land deal that made room for the stadium, the future Romare Bearden Park next door and a mixed-use development in Second Ward. But the project didn’t sit well with everyone, particularly because of the involvement of public property and money.
The county is leasing land for the stadium to the Knights for $1 a year, and approved $8 million for infrastructure. The Charlotte City Council in June also approved $8 million, nearly all of it coming from Mecklenburg’s hotel and motel occupancy tax.
One of the most persistent foes to the Knights stadium effort was Charlotte attorney Jerry Reese, who sued often to stop it from happening. Reese, who has long said he thinks the city should go for a major league baseball team instead, said he was among those in the crowd Friday for the groundbreaking.
“It’s of great interest to me,” he said, but declined to say more. “I don’t have any comment for you guys.”
Defining Third Ward
The Knights, a triple A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox, will play their 2013 season in Fort Mill. The stadium there has 10,002 seats, but data show the team averaged just 4,105 fans a game in 2011.
Team officials say they hope attendance will double with the move to uptown, and are predicting some 600,000 fans a year. The new stadium will be slightly smaller than the current Knights Stadium, with 8,500 to 10,000 seats depending on the event.
But the Knights and architects have said they think the stadium, which will look out to the Charlotte skyline, will appeal to people across the community. Features will include picnic tables, suites facing home plate and a Home Run Porch area for fans who want to lounge or stand during games.
Community leaders also hope the ballpark will spur other development in Third Ward.
“This ballpark is a defining piece of infrastructure for this neighborhood,” said Michael Smith, president and chairman of Charlotte Center City Partners. “It will shape everything that’s here.”
Team officials have not announced ticket packages for the new stadium. The team has set up a website for the project at charlotteknightsatuptown.com.