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Morgantown seeks ballpark and gathering place similar to Charleston’s

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The city of Charleston opened Appalachian Power Park in 2005. The city of Charleston opened Appalachian Power Park in 2005.
WHITNEY BURDETTE / The State Journal WHITNEY BURDETTE / The State Journal

Sometimes legislation is passed that improves the economic situation of an area or county.

But sometimes, the opposite happens.

Such was the case with Senate Bill 125, which would have established a tax increment financing, or TIF, district in Monongalia County. The $200 million project was to include the construction of both an interchange off Interstate 79 and a new baseball stadium in hopes of attracting a minor league team to the area. 

Commercial and retail real estate development was expected to follow.

But in the waning hours of the 2013 regular legislative session, the bill died. Now, an area that is underdeveloped may remain so. And a town without professional baseball could miss its chance for economic growth. 

Thinking About the Sport

Enticing a minor league baseball team to locate in an area isn't easy. An area can have all the infrastructure in place and the desire for a professional baseball team, but the final decision is left up to individual team owners.

"It's if the owners decide they want to move, that's where the appeal would be," said Adam Marco, director of media relations for the West Virginia Power, Charleston's Class A minor league affiliate. 

Marco pointed out that almost every major league team has an ownership group, so cities and counties have to attract the owners, not necessarily the team itself.

"It's a strange rule in minor league baseball how they handle the ownership," Marco said. 

A representative from the New York-Penn League met with Monongalia County officials to express interest in locating a team to the area, possibly a Pittsburgh Pirates affiliate. Rod Blackstone, deputy mayor of Charleston, said the New York-Penn League is ranked immediately below the South Atlantic League. The West Virginia Power is in the South Atlantic League, so players in the New York-Penn League could potentially play in Charleston if they stay with the organization. The Power is also a Pittsburgh Pirates affiliate. 

But Marco said adding another Pittsburgh Pirates affiliate in the state wouldn't hurt the Charleston team.

"When it comes to adding another team to the state, it doesn't necessarily affect us because Morgantown is two-and-a-half hours away," Marco said. "We don't have a lot of our fan base that drives from that direction. If anything, more baseball in the state of West Virginia is only a good thing for us. It gets more people thinking about the sport, thinking about the industry."

Charleston has been home to a minor league baseball team pretty consistently since the 1930s, with the Charleston Senators. The team has changed ownership, major league affiliates, names and mascots, but one thing remains true — Charleston loves baseball and would do whatever it takes to keep a team in the city, including building a new, multimillion dollar, state-of-the-art ballpark.

If You Build it, They Will Stay

"If we had not built a new ballpark we wouldn't have professional baseball in Charleston today. Period. Exclamation point. I am convinced, convinced, convinced," Blackstone said. 

Blackstone has been an avid follower of Charleston baseball for years. Otherwise known as the "Toast Man," Blackstone can often be seen behind home plate at Appalachian Power Park burning toast when players on the other team strike out and cheering and jeering throughout the game.

Blackstone said new minor league ballparks were popping up around the country in the late 1990s and early 2000s, making Charleston's old Watt Powell Park a thing of the past.

"The owners of the team at the time had bought the Charleston Alley Cats," said Dave Molgaard, Charleston city manager. "They're the ones who came to us and said, ‘Look we need a new stadium. What we're working out of now is nowhere close to state of the industry. If we don't get a new stadium, we're going to move the team out of Charleston.' And so we saw that as our last and best opportunity to keep professional baseball in the city."

That's when the city began earnestly looking for land to construct a newer, better park. But that part wasn't easy. Land is hard to come by in Charleston, and the team owners insisted the ballpark be built downtown, close to the interstate and in a populated area. Molgaard said ballparks constructed across the country at that time fit that formula and were seeing success. 

But finding money wasn't easy, either. The city settled on land, a parcel adjacent to Charleston Area Medical Center's General Hospital and a shopping center called Plaza East along Morris Street downtown. But they needed a way to fund the project. 

"When we were building that stadium, the only way we could do it was because of economic development grants made available to us when Gov. (Bob) Wise was converting the gray machines into legitimate lottery revenue," Molgaard said. "He did the economic development grants and anybody who is familiar with the history might recall it got stalled in litigation for about a year. We had started our project. My predecessor had retained architects to design that particular stadium. They got to a certain level, then the litigation started and bonds were held up and they stopped their drawings and design of the stadium."

But while the funding was stuck in litigation, the owners of the Charleston Alley Cats sold the team and bought another one, located in Montgomery, Ala. 

Once Molgaard stepped into his current role as city manager, however, the West Virginia Supreme Court released those funds to the project. But, there was another problem.

"My predecessor has also been involved in hiring a construction manager to build the project," Molgaard said. "So as the drawings came from the architect and the construction manager, estimators were putting dollars to it and what we discovered was it was way over budget."

The 4,500-seat park cost $25 million. Construction was completed prior to the 2005 season. 

Center of the Community

But Appalachian Power Park is more than just baseball. The park is open throughout the year and features concerts, boxing and wrestling, polar plunges and charity events. Blackstone said that was the goal from the get-go.

"When we were pitching the ballpark as a project for the city of Charleston, one of the things we said was the economic impact wouldn't be as great as the community impact," he said.

And that's what Monongalia County Commissioner Tom Bloom would love to see out of a ballpark in his county.

Although the park would see a lot of baseball — thanks to West Virginia University, Fairmont State University and a minor league team — Bloom said he hopes the park would also attract other family-friendly events.

"We're looking at more than a baseball stadium for WVU," Bloom said. "We will be contracting with Fairmont State and also a minor league team. I have also requested an event center in the sense of country or classic rock programs, different events we could put on in that venue. It becomes a community program."

And the ballparks are about more than just baseball or community entertainment. They're about jobs.

"There are more people working at the ballpark now than there was at Watt Powell Park," Blackstone said, adding that those jobs would have been lost if the team had left Charleston.

Molgaard said the park itself employs about 280 part-time and dozens of full-time employees. 

The Monongalia County ballpark and what it would offer is just one piece of the puzzle, Bloom explained. 

"There is a lot of economic value for the citizens of Monongalia County," he said. 

"The other advantage people don't realize is this TIF district is on the western end on Monongalia County that development will be allowed to grow."

Bloom said the boost in tax base would allow the western end of the county to grow and the county could put the infrastructure in place to support it. Developers also are interested in the area, he said.

"It's a positive situation for not only Monongalia County, but the tax base of West Virginia," he said, noting the additional development the TIF would bring cannot be ignored.

"Everyone is focusing on the WVU stadium," he said. "There is so much more than the WVU stadium. There is $180 million additional building, infrastructure, interchange, development people are missing. At the same time we'll get this stadium and it's a win-win for WVU and the community working together."