By the time Bruce Miller arrived in Memphis in the late 1990s, a long-neglected stretch along downtown’s Union Avenue had already been pegged as the home for a new triple-A minor league baseball stadium.
All it needed was some blueprints — a plan, a vision.
Working in tandem with a local architecture firm, Miller led Kansas-City based HOK Sport’s role in designing what would become Auto Zone Park, home of the Memphis Redbirds, still the most expensive minor league stadium ever, a city-assisted investment that baseball and urban enthusiasts say provided a needed jolt to decaying downtown Memphis since its 2000 opening. Condos with spectacular field views flank the outfield walls. A hotel and restaurants occupy previously forgotten real estate. A retail center known as Peabody Place popped up just down the street. Inside the ballpark, fans swarmed to the seats, though attendance has since dropped.
“At the time we first came to Memphis, it was pretty rough,” Miller told The City Paper, recalling the stretch of parking lots and ramshackle buildings now occupied by Auto Zone Park. “It was a rundown area of town, not perceived to be all that safe, and pretty downtrodden economically. I think the ballpark certainly changed that perception.
“Once the ballpark received that final go-ahead to get started, you started to see other projects around it really start to happen,” he said.
Architects and consultants like Miller move from city to city in the niche (but high-stakes) business of studying and designing professional sports facilities.
Today, Miller — working for the subsidiary of the same Kansas City-based sports architecture firm now under the name Populous — is in Nashville to find a location that holds a similar promise of revitalization through new stadium construction and ancillary development. For the next six or seven weeks, Miller, a principal at Populous and 21-year veteran of sports architecture, and a small team of planning and urban design specialists will be studying which of six Davidson County locations — four of them dot downtown — is the best spot to serve as a new home for Nashville’s Triple-A baseball franchise, the Sounds.
“Things are really getting more cranked up,” said Miller, who conducted what he called a “workshop” in Nashville last week, with plans to make periodic visits from his home turf in Kansas City.
In June, Metro contracted Populous for $157,000 to conduct a site feasibility study of potential locations. With the hire, Mayor Karl Dean’s administration extended its first public overture on the stadium-front to MFP Baseball, a group of investors who make up Sounds management and, who since purchasing the team in 2008, have advocated for a new stadium to replace dilapidated, 1970s-era Greer Stadium. The site study also marks the first potential movement toward a new minor league stadium in the four years following the collapse of a stadium deal with previous Sounds management during former Mayor Bill Purcell’s administration in 2007.
After taking an objective view, the company in short time — a report is expected in November — is to recommend the top stadium site, factoring in things like physical layouts, how the site could accommodate the footprint of a ballpark, as well as existing utilities, traffic and parking issues. In addition, Miller said Populous is exploring “what future development might look like” surrounding a new stadium and the economic impact the stadium could have at each site, along with budget projections.
(When pondering “economic impact,” think the financial jolt a project supposedly produces via dollars spent by fans, a tool used, for example, by Music City Center boosters to encourage the bankrolling of Nashville’s under-construction convention center.)
Jim Fyke, working out of the Metro Finance Department as the city’s point person on the ballpark study, said after the mayor’s office receives a final recommendation Metro would decide how to proceed. Before anything advances, he stressed, “There’s got to be an agreement reached with the Nashville Sounds which will protect the taxpayer significantly.”
“There’s only two givens — we get a location, and we study it to decide whether to go forward,” Fyke said.
Sites under consideration are as follows: the 11-acre Metro-owned former thermal plant site in SoBro along the west bank of the Cumberland River, where previous Sounds ownership saw a deal fall apart; state-owned property northeast of the Tennessee State Capitol that served as the home of Sulphur Dell, Nashville’s long demolished original ballpark; the east bank of the Cumberland, which failed to boom following the construction of LP Field; an unspecified location in the burgeoning Gulch neighborhood (presumably the North Gulch area, given existing development); the Pennington Bend area near Briley Parkway; and the current Greer location, with the possibility of a stadium renovation.
In some instances, Metro hasn’t revealed specific parcels to avoid alarming property owners.
“I think there are a lot of opinions out there, but our job is to look at available sites from an objective standpoint and try to help the city make a decision on where they want to locate a future Nashville Sounds ballpark, if there is to be one,” Miller said. “That’s part of the analysis, too: What’s the financial picture look like? What would the ballpark cost?”
In anticipation of the forthcoming recommendation, it’s worth looking at Populous itself. In choosing the Kansas City company over five other groups that placed bids, Metro hired perhaps the nation’s most dominant player in the sports facility business.
Miller recently served as Populous’ principal lead for Target Field, the new outdoor stadium in Minneapolis that serves as home to the Minnesota Twins. The company itself has had its fingerprints on new Major League Baseball stadiums across the country, from PNC Park in Pittsburgh to new Busch Stadium in St. Louis, to the new Florida Marlins ballpark in Miami, among a host of others. In the minor league world, Populous casts an equally large shadow, playing parts in the construction of new Triple-A stadiums in Tulsa, Okla., and Durham, N.C., for example.
Populous — formerly HOK — often assumes multiple roles. In Nashville, the job right now is to complete the ongoing site study. But under the agreement with Metro, the company could later bid on the designing of a stadium. Populous would likely bid to design Nashville’s stadium, if Metro and Sounds management ever strike a deal.
“We certainly hope so,” Miller said of doing the stadium’s design work. “We’re taking it seriously and would like to be a part of whatever project develops out of this.”
There’s a track record of such scenarios playing out in other cities. In Pittsburgh in the mid-’90s, according to a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette account, then-HOK was contracted for feasibility and renovation studies of stadiums for multiple sports teams. The company also worked on the designs of Heinz Field and PNC Park. This practice — offering front-end advice on locations, budgets, etc., on projects before bidding on more lucrative design packages — has drawn some scrutiny.
“That’s where the big money is,” said Heywood Sanders, a professor at the University of Texas-San Antonio’s Department of Public Administration. Sanders, a well-known critic of municipally financed civic projects, made a name in Nashville two years ago for raising a red flag over the financing of Music City Center.
“What some firms do is they use this as a sort of foot-in-the-door as a way to get some handle, if not lock, on the far more lucrative architectural/design contract,” Sanders said. “But the dilemma with that is you don’t know who these folks are trying to please or impress.”
Miller rejected such criticism. He also pointed out not all Populous site studies have resulted in stadiums.
“We don’t promote projects,” Miller said. “We provide facts ... It really miscasts our role to say we somehow have influence in making a project happen.”
Miller, who said every city and stadium situation is unique, described three phases in the Nashville feasibility study: The first is an overview of all the sites. The second, he said, is to whittle the list down to two sites through a more detailed analysis. The final layer is to settle on one site and provide the city with a breakdown of how a stadium could function — the pros and cons — at that location.
In fact, this isn’t Populous’ first study in Nashville. Leading up to the new Sounds stadium efforts during Purcell’s administration, the prior Sounds ownership hired then-HOK to look at the former thermal plan site. Miller worked on the study. (The City Paper was unsuccessful in tracking down this report.)
“Things have changed quite a bit,” Miller said. “That was five years ago.”
For the ongoing Metro-commissioned study, Miller said his group has “taken it as a given” that a new Sounds stadium, or at least a renovated one, is needed. Though he said his company wouldn’t be projecting the seating capacity of the park, he said it would likely be smaller than, say, Auto Zone Park, which holds more than 14,000.
He also said he expects community input to be something that comes after the site analysis is complete. The scope of Populous’ work does not include recommending how to finance a ballpark.
“That’s where the city really starts to get involved,” Miller said.
There’s a natural tendency to start delving into the financing component of a new ballpark. But for now, financial parameters are unclear, though the prevailing thought is Dean’s administration expects a better deal for the city than the plan Purcell helped orchestrate prior to its demise. That deal, which would have paid for a $43 million stadium, relied on $20 million in public tax-increment-financing, with the Sounds obtaining a $23 million loan from a consortium of banks.
In deciding whether to put his political weight behind a new ballpark, Dean will have to decide whether the city has an appetite for another large-scale — possibly expensive — facility, as the city continues to pay off debt for a convention center. There’s also the matter of a struggling economy, and the question of going all-in with a minor league sports stadium — for a team that averaged approximately 4,800 fans per game this past season — when Nashville has emerged as a pro sports town.
With those just a few of the considerations, Metro Council members are already calling for a public-private partnership that has a major private component.
“Major — in capital letters,” At-large Councilman Tim Garrett said, adding it would otherwise be hard to sell to the public.
For Populous, part of the challenge in its site study could be overcoming what are perceived preferences of the mayor’s office, the Sounds and even other stakeholders. Dean has floated the idea of reigniting baseball at Sulphur Dell, though he certainly didn’t take that pitch to stump speeches during his recent re-election campaign. Meanwhile, the Sounds covet the same former thermal plant site that their predecessors sought for a new stadium — although Nashville Symphony Center officials have eyed this land for a possible amphitheater.
“The Sounds ownership think it’s pretty obvious that the very best site for a stadium would be at the thermal site,” said attorney Tom White, a registered lobbyist for the Sounds. “They are clearly aware that it would have to include other uses on the site, whether it’s an amphitheater or some housing component or any number of different uses.”
Perhaps surprisingly, as of last week, it appeared Populous — hired by Metro, of course — and the Sounds weren’t yet in communication.
“If there is [communication], I’m unaware of it,” said White, a partner with Nashville-based Tune, Entrekin & White PC. “If it’s not, it certainly ought to take place, as I expect it will as Populous continues on.”
Whether the Sounds like it or not, Sulphur Dell has already drawn some interest from others watching the new stadium talks. A group dubbed “Friends of Sulphur Dell” has formed to push the proposal. It’s also attracted the interest of some council members.
“Putting a Sounds stadium downtown at the thermal plant site, or near the Music City Center, would not give you the same rate of return as putting it at Sulphur Dell,” said At-large Councilman Jerry Maynard, adding that it would spur immediate residential and commercial development. Still, he said he doesn’t want to pre-empt the study’s results.
“I’m waiting to get the results of the study to see what they say and whether they agree with my analysis,” he said.
But to characterize the Sulphur Dell push as an unchallenged proposal isn’t accurate either. The location, unlike a few of the potential sites, has thriving adjacent neighborhoods, including Buena Vista, Germantown, Hope Gardens and Salemtown. Some support a Sulphur Dell ballpark, but it’s not universal. There’s some wariness.
Mike Byrd, who serves on Salemtown Neighbors Neighborhood Association’s executive committee and also operates a popular blog, said his group and three other community groups met more than a year ago to discuss thoughts about a Sulphur Dell ballpark. Topping concerns, he recounted, is the fear a new stadium could threaten the principles laid out in the recently drafted North Nashville Community Plan. He said much time and effort went into its creation.
“Our association expressed guarded openness to the project,” Byrd said. “But collectively, we want to see traffic impact studies. We have concerns about vehicular-oriented growth that would alter plans for complete streets and a pedestrian-friendly community.”
Meanwhile, plenty of folks think a ballpark might work well at the site of the old thermal plant, which burned downed a decade ago. Renderings for a stadium were drawn up in 2007, but the site remains vacant today.
Developer Michael Hayes, former Nashville director of Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse — the Baltimore-based development group that worked with previous Sounds management to strike a thermal site deal — remains vice president of Nashville-based C.B. Ragland. The real estate group owns multiple properties near the vacant thermal plant site.
“Around the thermal site, there was widespread consensus and support that it’s an ideal site for a ballpark,” Hayes recalled. “The volumes of work that were done with the public, and what they wanted to see, showed the thermal site.
“The key to the thermal site was to be within 2,500 feet of 40,000 employees,” he said.
Whichever direction the study suggests — and there are four other options besides Sulphur Dell and the old thermal plant site — the hunt for a location has already created a buzz. Teaming with students from the University of Tennessee College of Architecture and Design, the Nashville Civic Design Center recently explored what potential stadiums could look like at some of locations under consideration.
“You want to have a series of overarching principles no matter where the site is,” said Gary Gaston, the design center’s design director. “But at the same time, each site is going to have its own opportunities and limitations that will need to be taken into account.”