Mark Washburn

Charlotte Knights: Long road to a new uptown ballpark

Come. Sit. Look.

It’s supposed to be a view of a pastime, but it’s a portrait of history.

From any seat on either base line, you see where Charlotte scrapes the sky. Uptown’s spires, grand monuments to the city’s ambitions, huddle like giants peering over the fence. We look up, they look down and between us is something playful that’s been missing in Charlotte for nearly a quarter-century: baseball.

For a city sometimes regarded as too big for its britches, BB&T Ballpark – which opens Friday night to a weekend of sellout crowds – is a small thing on a grand scale. Stuffed into a single city block down the street from its colossal cousin, Bank of America Stadium, the ballpark offers entertainment inside and promise outside. About $250 million worth of development, including luxury apartments, is rising just beyond its ramparts, and more is expected.

Like anything in Charlotte that requires public money and land, it has been a contentious issue. BB&T Ballpark’s charms – the league’s largest scoreboard, suites on the dugout level that put you closer to the batter than the pitcher is – will do little to soothe critics. But for anyone who loves the game, the ballpark is a thing of intimate beauty.

And it’s a near-miracle that it ever happened at all.

Charlotte and baseball

In 1892, professional baseball came to Charlotte in the form of a team called the Hornets, a reference to the stubborn rebels who in 1780 drove away Lord Cornwallis in a turning point of the Revolutionary War. Cornwallis labeled the city “a hornet’s nest of rebellion” and we’ve been basking in the compliment since.

For 81 years, the Hornets were a summertime distraction for Charlotte, then they left. After three years without baseball, a farm club for the Orioles landed in Dilworth’s Crockett Park.

On March 16, 1985, somebody set fire to the wooden stadium. It burned so fast and hot that it peeled paint off one of the first fire trucks to arrive.

Hundreds of people gathered to watch the inferno that reduced the stadium to ashes and consumed its historic relics – including the old uniform of an up-and-coming Orioles third baseman named Cal Ripken who had played in Charlotte five years earlier.

Temporary stands were erected, and the team and the city bickered about what could be done about a new ballpark. George Shinn – who was bringing an NBA franchise to Charlotte – bought the club in 1987, renamed it the Charlotte Knights and moved it to a new stadium in Fort Mill, S.C., three years later.

Charlotte turned its attention elsewhere as the Knights grew out of sight and mind. In four of the past five years, they had the lowest attendance in the International League.

Needed to move

Don Beaver, a multimillionaire who made his fortune in nursing homes, bought the team in 1997, largely for its ballpark. He was part of a group trying to bring the Minnesota Twins to the Triad.

Shinn designed the Fort Mill ballpark so it could be converted to major league specifications. Beaver’s plan was to park the Twins there for a year or two while building a stadium between Winston-Salem and Greensboro.

After the Twins deal fell through, he was stuck with a money-losing team about a half-hour drive from Charlotte.

Beaver has been a baseball fan since childhood. He pitched for Mooresville as a 12-year-old in the 1952 Little League World Series. His team got beat by one run, but he had his picture taken that day with Hall of Fame pitcher Cy Young.

It was clear to him that the team needed to move back to Charlotte if it were to ever prosper. A consultant’s study in 2004 pinpointed uptown as the best spot.

Lawsuits, recession

Plans came and went. Finally, a bold land swap deal involving the city, county and school board and uptown landholders was proposed. Michael Smith, president of Center City Partners, remembers meeting weekly with the major stakeholders over 18 months to work it out.

Attorney Jerry Reese, who believed the Charlotte region could support a major league franchise and was in talks to get one, filed multiple suits beginning in 2007 opposing a minor league park. Then the recession hit, drying up potential financing.

Finally, in June 2012, after a decade of wrangling, a deal was approved in which the city and county each agreed to put $8 million into the project, and the county approved a 99-year lease for the land – valued at about $20 million – at $1 a year. Banks gave Beaver the rest of the financing for the $54 million stadium.

On Sept. 14, 2012, ground was broken. Among those attending the ceremony was Reese.

“Charlotte got what Charlotte wanted,” he says, meaning a team in the minors rather than the majors.

“It’s symbolic of where Charlotte sees itself in the pecking order now – we belong with the Buffaloes, the Toledos.”

Spin-off benefits

Smith of Center City Partners says the 10,000-seat stadium and adjoining Romare Bearden Park are bringing vitality to what was a decrepit stretch of uptown. Tens of thousands of people work weekdays within walking distance of the ballpark, and nearby restaurants and bars are certain to benefit from the crowds it will draw.

“We never gave up on the idea that bringing minor league baseball would create this neighborhood,” Smith says. Only four cities in the nation he knows of have four major or minor league professional sports – football, basketball, baseball and hockey – in their central business districts: New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Cleveland.

Come Friday, Charlotte joins the list.

“It’s been a long journey,” Smith says.

Many sleepless nights

Dan Rajkowski, executive vice president of the Knights, says he’s been working toward an uptown park since he joined the club in 2005. “It was years of going to meetings, getting shot down, going to meetings,” he says.

He never gave up hope. As he traveled across the country through those years, he carried a notebook and a camera, plucking the best ingredients of other parks.

“I’d ask what they liked and what they’d change because I didn’t want to make the same mistakes,” Rajkowski says.

From any seat on either base line, you can see the ballparks of the International League. You can see the right-field porch Rajkowski borrowed from the Columbus Clippers, the dugout suites inspired by the Lehigh Valley Ironpigs, the intimate closeness enjoyed by the Toledo Mudhens.

Rajkowski says he has had years of sleepless nights over the obstacles that faced the stadium project.

“I’m getting that back now, looking at this beautiful place.”

When the night lights go on, BB&T Ballpark will shine with a luminescence visible for miles. That’s the other view the stadium offers, and it is a spectacular thing – a beacon signaling that, at long last, Charlotte’s back in the game.

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