Not in the ballpark, right now

October 24, 2008
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Downtown baseball field intriguing for CAA, but …

The idea Rockford Companies CEO John Wheeler recently shared about building a new downtown baseball park for the West Michigan Whitecaps that would double as an outdoor music venue was welcomed by the Convention and Arena Authority this week.

But ultimately the concept of putting the field on two parking lots behind Van Andel Arena, which are owned by the Downtown Development Authority, raised more concerns than compliments.

"It's great when people share ideas," said CAA Chairman Steven Heacock.

"But the idea to try to duplicate an incredibly successful facility is ridiculous," he said of Fifth Third Ballpark, the park the Whitecaps own and are investing up to $1.5 million into this off season.

"The Whitecaps have exhibited great expertise in running their own building."

Heacock added that if the Class A baseball franchise was struggling, which it isn't, and if the team's management had asked to move from its home in Comstock Park to downtown, which it hasn't, then the idea of a downtown baseball field would carry more weight.

"The CAA is committed to downtown. If it has a positive impact on downtown, then the CAA would be interested. But it's presumptuous for the CAA to determine what is best for the Whitecaps," said CAA Executive Director Rich MacKeigan.

Wheeler also said he would offer to pay off the remaining mortgage on the ballpark to entice the team to move downtown, as the team's majority owners Lew Chamberlin and Dennis Baxter would have to agree to move before the idea can shift into the project stage.

Moving, though, could mean the partners may have to give up revenue streams like parking, hosting events other than baseball and possibly concessions, not to mention the equity shares they have in their current park.

"I really don't know whether it would work for us or not," said Chamberlin, also a CAA board member.

Another aspect of his idea has Wheeler turning over the operational control of the park to the CAA because the board manages public facilities and wants to build an amphitheater for outdoor concerts and shows during the warm months. He said the baseball field would eliminate that cost.

But Heacock said the CAA's operations plate is pretty full right now with managing the arena and DeVos Place, two obligations he said the panel takes very seriously. Plus he didn't think the management staff was large enough to take on another venue.

"We're a skinny as we can be. It's not that simple," said Heacock. 

Heacock also said the CAA wasn't so committed to putting the amphitheater in Kent County's Millennium Park that the venue couldn't go elsewhere. The park is the leading location because county officials have offered to lease a parcel to the CAA for next to nothing, which cuts out a major expense for the project that still needs funding sources totaling roughly $30 million to go forward.

"If a better idea came along, we'd look at it," said Heacock.

Heacock, MacKeigan and Chamberlin said they need more information about the idea before they could make further comments. All said they said hadn't spoken with Wheeler as of the middle of this week.

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