Just days from now, fans will grab their gloves, throw on their caps and turn onto Chestnut Street to watch the hometown Nashville Sounds take on the Iowa Cubs. It’s another home opener at Greer Stadium.
Over the years, Nashville’s minor league ballpark has showcased its share of stars, from former greats like Don Mattingly and Willie McGee to current stars Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun. But the stadium, built in 1978, still feels like a relic of from a mostly forgettable era.
Sure, Greer’s condition has improved. Last year’s $2.5 million renovations restored previously decrepit bathrooms, placed seats where there were once gaps, and added a better sound system. Despite these upgrades and the famous guitar-shaped scoreboard that’s been a crowd pleaser since 1993, Greer has seen better days — especially compared with the wave of new downtown Minor League Baseball stadiums cropping up throughout the country.
Recognizing the shortcomings of Greer and the inconvenience of its location, the Sounds’ new owners have casually pitched their desire for a new downtown ballpark at a few informal meetings with the mayor’s office. So far, the group has been testing the waters, but as the new season arrives, the organization is ready for talks to pick up.
For the time being, Metro doesn’t appear to share that sense of urgency.
From the moment New York-based MFP Real Estate purchased the city’s Minor League Baseball club in 2008, the group has made clear its desire to depart the dilapidated, 32-year-old stadium for a new downtown ballpark. Although the former Sulphur Dell site — northeast of the state Capitol building — and the fairgrounds have been bandied about as potential locations, Sounds owners are clear they would prefer to build on a valuable, city-owned 12-acre property near downtown’s riverfront where an old thermal plant once sat. It’s the same tract the previous Sounds owners eyed before they botched a deal three years ago.
In recent weeks, the new ownership group has made a calculated push for a new stadium, hiring veteran real estate attorney Tom White as legal counsel, Hastings Architects to produce renderings and John Seigenthaler Jr. as public relations strategist. To borrow the overused but appropriate baseball expression, the Sounds are ready to play ball.
“Timing-wise, I’d love to resolve it this year,” Sounds co-owner Frank Ward told The City Paper. “But that’s something not in our control.”
For the Sounds, time appears to be of the essence. At the end of the year, the organization’s affiliation with Major League Baseball’s Milwaukee Brewers is up for renewal. In an era when retro downtown minor league ballparks are popping up in cities like Louisville, Ky.; Durham, N.C.; and Reno, Nev., the Brewers would like to see Nashville move toward that end.
“One of the things that the Brewers have made very clear to us is, absent the clear indication that there’s going to be somewhere else other than Greer to play, the Brewers are probably not interested in being affiliated with us,” Ward said. “They realize you can’t have the stadium tomorrow, but they want to know that something is going to transpire.”
Ward didn’t rule out relocating the Sounds if they’re unable to build a new stadium here.
“You would have to explore something,” he said. “I don’t know what that is yet. A reasonable businessman would have to say, ‘I can’t afford to play here. I can’t afford to continue pumping money down the hole. I can’t continue to keep losing money. I have to look at what alternatives are available to me.’ ”
Ward, who maintains he’s “guardedly optimistic” that a deal would emerge and said he has no complaints about city leadership, suggested a formal stadium proposal awaits the go-ahead from Mayor Karl Dean. “That’s more driven by the city,” Ward said. “When the city says, ‘Here’s what we want to know. Here’s the proposal we want,’ we will present it to them.”
But Dean, Metro Finance Director Richard Riebeling and others in the mayor’s office aren’t too eager to publicly discuss the topic — not now, anyway; not in the middle of the budget process; and certainly not on the heels of the campaign for a new $585 million downtown convention center. Moreover, officials in the mayor’s office said it’s incumbent upon the Sounds to offer Metro a presentation.
Contacted by email to interview Dean on the possibility of a new Sounds stadium, mayor’s office spokeswoman Janel Lacy declined. Instead, she offered up a canned statement referring to the mayor as a “huge baseball fan” who would “like to see a new baseball stadium in Nashville at some point.”
“When the time comes, there will be a full public discussion of the issue, but now is not that time,” the statement continued. “Mayor Dean’s full attention is focused on the budget.”
Meanwhile, Riebeling, who has been point man in discussions with the team, said he’s “not ready to sit down and negotiate anything.”
“They haven’t presented anything,” he said. “I’ve got some higher priorities right now that are going to take up my time over the next 90 days.”
Although no financing plan has been drafted, the Sounds would most likely hope to pay for the stadium through a variety of sources, including tax increment financing, or TIF, a common tool employed by municipalities — and typical among newer ballparks — in which future tax revenues from a designated district are dedicated to a large economic development project. There would also follow, the reasoning goes, ancillary development from which sales and real estate taxes would be used to help cover the debt.
If that’s the case, a deal could mirror the memorandum of understanding that then-Mayor Bill Purcell, former Sounds General Manager Glenn Yaeger and Baltimore-based developer Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse agreed upon in 2005. Under that plan for a $43 million stadium, which included a sizable mixed-use development, the Sounds agreed to take a $23 million loan from a consortium of 12 banks. Property tax revenues from surrounding buildings were supposed to generate $17 million in TIF dollars, and another $3 million would have come from the purchase of the land from Metro.
The deal fell through after Metro found the Sounds opted not to pay $3 million for complete construction documents, as requested by the city. Throughout the well-documented stadium struggle, Purcell never put his political clout to work for a ballpark.
“From the outset, it was not a project Mayor Purcell was terribly in favor of,” recalled developer Michael Hayes, former director of Struever Bros. “Had Purcell pushed it, it absolutely would have happened fast. It would have happened. He never pushed. And he never wanted to do any public financing.”
A ‘diverse’ project
The mayor and the Metro Council will ultimately decide whether another large downtown investment happens. The new ownership group is in good standing with most, having pumped $2.5 million worth of renovations into Greer Stadium last year as an act of good faith to the city.
Metro Councilman Mike Jameson, who represents the district that includes the thermal plant, said he supports a new downtown stadium, but his endorsement has some contingencies. First, he said the stadium must include a mixed-use component to facilitate future growth in the area.
“If it simply remains a stand-alone stadium, it has sort of unfortunately a carcinogenic effect on future development,” Jameson said. “Nothing has emerged on the campus of LP Field in 10 years. And that’s not the sort of effect you would like to see.”
Metro Councilwoman Emily Evans, meanwhile, said the key for the Sounds to reach a stadium deal is to “protect the taxpayer, the sales-tax payer and the property-tax payer” by making sure the project is diverse enough to allow it to be financed on its own success.
But while she called the last Sounds stadium proposal a “great one,” Evans cautioned that the public might not be eager to dive into another “glamour project.”
“I personally think baseball is fabulous,” Evans said. “It’s my favorite sport by far. I would love to see the Sounds have a new ballpark, but enormous amounts of political capital have gone into the convention center, and the public’s a little weary of this, so we need to be very careful.”