For Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson, the road to a new state-of-the-art downtown minor league ballpark began, strangely enough, more than a decade ago in a YMCA steam room.
Following an afternoon jog with the son of one of the owners of the triple-A Louisville Redbirds, the two sat, presumably in comfort, and discussed the inadequacies of the minor league team’s home, Cardinal Stadium, which was built for football.
In the 1990s, the model for new, retro-style stadiums in urban areas was Baltimore’s Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Encouraged to check it out, Abramson found himself there the very next weekend.
He immediately saw a comparison between the famous warehouse beyond the right field wall of Camden Yards and a late-19th-century trolley barn in a “dilapidated area” a mile from Louisville’s city hall. (Abramson’s description doesn’t sound too much different from the underused SoBro area that the Nashville Sounds’ ownership group is eyeing now.)
“ ‘Self,’ I thought, ‘maybe that could be our entrance into a new baseball park,’ ” Abramson recalled.
That trolley barn would eventually serve as the front door of Louisville’s Slugger Field, a 13,000-seat ballpark completed in 2000 that’s home to the Bats, the triple-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds. Its construction came after a strong push from Abramson and the backing of the business community.
Rather than using tax increment financing, which was proposed in the Sounds stadium deal that never happened three years ago, Abramson said the city floated bonds to meet the $28 million price tag.
“We didn’t have TIFs at that time,” Abramson said. “We would probably do it that way now.”
What’s followed, Abramson said, is more than $150 million of private investment in the form of condos, high-rises and retail in a previously abandoned part of downtown.
“It’s just fabulous,” he said. “It’s been a tremendous success in terms of the investments in the surrounding area.”