Among the impressive facilities that Commerce Lexington members saw in downtown Greenville, S.C., during their visit in June was Fluor Field at West End.
The 5,700-seat baseball stadium was built in 2006 for the Boston Red Sox's Class A affiliate, The Greenville Drive. Modeled after Boston's Fenway Park, the charming ballpark helps give downtown Greenville a vibrant, urban feel.
It left some Kentuckians wondering: Did downtown Lexington miss an opportunity when the Lexington Legends' stadium was built on North Broadway near New Circle Road?
"It would have been a great boon to downtown," said Legends founder Alan Stein. "But we couldn't get any cooperation from the city council or the state."
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Stein is a top executive with the company that owns and manages several minor-league teams, including the Legends. Long before all of that, though, he spent 15 years trying to bring minor-league baseball to Lexington. He commissioned plans for a stadium in the Cox Street lot beside Rupp Arena. He looked at property at Pine Street and South Broadway.
"There was never any question in my mind that it was supposed to be an urban ballpark," he said. "Our whole concept was, 'While we're doing this, let's help downtown Lexington.' "
Building a ballpark for the Class AA team that Stein wanted to start would have required government help — city-owned land or government-issued construction bonds that could be repaid with stadium revenues or hospitality taxes. The Urban County Council and many other people in Lexington were against that.
Many professional sports facilities are built with public help, but some economists argue that they are not good investments. Minor-league baseball stadiums have a better track record, though, because they are less expensive than other facilities and have more frequent games that are played in the afternoon, as well as the evening. That means more economic impact for surrounding businesses.
"When it became a private deal, there was no downtown land available," Stein said. "Either everything was owned by the government or was just way too expensive." He also downsized his ambitions to Class A to cut costs.
Stein identified 17 sites around Central Kentucky — including free land offered in Woodford, Scott and Jessamine counties — but chose the 30-acre North Broadway site, 2 miles north of Main Street, because he wanted to be as close to downtown as possible.
The Legends began play in 2001 in a $25 million, privately financed stadium, now called Whitaker Bank Ballpark. Stein said that because pre-sales of tickets were so strong, the stadium was enlarged during construction from 4,000 to 6,000 seats, which means it could handle a Class AA team in the future. "The site we found turned out to be ideal and has worked beautifully," he said.
But never say never.
Stein is among 50 people now serving on Lexington's Arena, Arts and Entertainment District Task Force, appointed by Mayor Jim Gray to consider options for redeveloping 46 downtown acres of city-owned land that includes Rupp Arena, Lexington Center and a sea of parking around them.
"Now the question is — and I get asked this in every speech I make — would you rather have been downtown, or did it work out where it is?" Stein said. "It depends on which hat I'm wearing.
"We have made literally tens of millions of dollars on this project that we wouldn't have made had it been a public-private partnership," Stein said. "But as someone who really cares about the development of Lexington, I think it was a huge missed opportunity. It would have made a big difference in the economic history of the past 15 years in downtown."
Would the Legends ever consider moving downtown? After all, the Whitaker Bank Ballpark property is much more valuable now, after a decade of booming growth on Lexington's north side and more to come with the new Bluegrass Community and Technical College campus.
"If somebody were interested in buying that from us and then participating in building a new stadium downtown, we would look at that," Stein said. "Those are a lot of ifs. But I'm always open to a deal."