By Eddie Southards
The city of Fayetteville hopes to hit a home run by building a baseball stadium downtown on Hay Street that will house a minor league affiliate of the World Series champion Houston Astros.
Construction of the $37.8 million project is well underway and on schedule to be ready for the 2019 season opener in April.
But there is much more than a baseball stadium in play in this high-stakes investment. City and Astros officials believe it could be the catalyst to create a dramatic change in downtown Fayetteville by making it an entertainment and business destination.
One company, Prince Charles Holding, already has announced plans for a $65 million investment that will include a hotel with rooms looking down into the stadium, a parking garage and a transformation of the historic Prince Charles Hotel that will convert it into apartments by March of next year.
Fayetteville team president Mark Zarthar is excited about the prospects.
“I thought I was coming here to run a baseball team but that's not necessarily the case,” he said. “It's more of an entire city developmental project in conjunction with the real estate developers and the city of Fayetteville. It's much bigger than baseball. No matter how many tickets we sell or how well we do as a team, we won't be considered a success unless the downtown revitalization is considered a success as well.”
Zarthar grew up in a suburb of Boston and moved to Fayetteville from New York City where he worked for Anheuser-Busch in sports marketing. It is quite a lifestyle change for the 30-year-old but he didn't see just a sleepy Southern town when he arrived in Fayetteville in March.
“I think what may go underappreciated is the character of downtown Fayetteville,” he said. “When I first walked Hay Street, what stood out to me were the tree-lined streets, the cobblestoned sidewalks, the 1800s architecture and the colorful storefronts. It reminded me of places like River Street in Savannah (Georgia) and King Street in Charleston (South Carolina). Those are places that tourists flock to because of their character. We just need a bit more of a shot in the arm to reach our potential and this project can help us take the next step.”
The Class A Carolina League franchise has been playing games for the past two seasons at Campbell University in Buies Creek while the stadium is being built. Not much has yet been revealed about the team once it moves to Fayetteville, other than the team colors will be red, gray and black. The stadium will be trimmed in those colors, too.
But all will be revealed in August at a planned celebration open to the public. Zarthar said the team uniforms and logo will be displayed and T-shirts and caps will be available for purchase. There will be live music, food and beverages and the World Series trophy may even be here so fans can take pictures with it.
Most importantly, the team name will be revealed. Zarthar would neither confirm nor deny the choices were down to Woodpeckers or Fatbacks. Fans also had voted for Fly Traps, Jumpers or Wood Dogs in a contest held last year.
“We understand the name is a hot topic in Fayetteville,” he said. “It's great to hear everyone ask about the team name. To me, it just shows that people are highly interested in this team and the stadium. The anticipation is certainly there.”
Zarthar and his small staff, for now, are working out of an office on Hay Street about three blocks from the stadium site. Once the stadium is ready, the team offices will move there. The stadium will seat about 4,900 and will include a team merchandise store, a ticket office, a clubhouse and batting cages.
Six suites will be available for businesses to lease for their employees or clients' use. There will be covered seating behind home plate. Concession stands will offer what Zarthar calls “high quality, highly creative food.”
A large video scoreboard in left center field will have the capability of in-game replays and offer advertising opportunities for local businesses.
The field will be covered in real grass and the dimensions to the fence from home plate will be 345 feet down the left field line, 375 to left center, 400 to center field, 370 to right center and 325 down the right field line.
Season tickets will go on sale at the brand launch party in August. Single-game tickets will go on sale early next year after the team gets its schedule. Zarthar said those tickets will range from $9-$16.
Fans also can join the Founders Club. For $250, they can have their name etched in bricks that will be located at the stadium entrance.
The stadium will not sit idle in the baseball offseason. Zarthar already is making plans to host collegiate and high school baseball tournaments, high school football games and concerts.
Zarthar said he has no concerns about the stadium being ready on time for the season opener in April.
He said the construction firm, the Barton-Malow Company, “has a track record of never being late for any stadium and they've built stadiums all over the United States. I'm very confident the stadium will be beautiful, it will be state of the art and it will be ready for opening day.”
Zarthar plans to have a full-time staff of about 20 people in place by the end of the year. He also will be hiring about 50 part-time workers for the baseball season.
“Finding local and diverse talent is something we will be focused on,” he said.
The arrival of the team also should boost employment in downtown businesses. “They will be required to hire hundreds of part-time staff to support an influx of 5,000 fans for a baseball game,” Zarthar said. “We expect bars, restaurants and shops to thrive based on the added foot traffic.”
Will there be enough parking available for all the fans? Yes, according to Zarthar.
“It's not going to be an issue at all,” he said. “There might be limited parking on Hay Street but if you go one block south to Franklin Street, there is an abundant amount of parking including a parking garage. Go another block south to Russell Street and there's even more parking. The Dogwood Festival had 120,000 people on Saturday and there were no parking issues. I think downtown can accommodate our 4,900 fans.”
Once inside the stadium, Zarthar feels any perceived problems will melt away.
“This is not about minor league baseball or the stadium,” he said. “It's an entertainment venue and an anchor for downtown businesses. We'll have fireworks shows, an area for kids to hang out and a bar for adults.”
Fayetteville has not been kind to professional sports teams in the past. Two basketball teams and two minor-league baseball teams have failed to last. The last such baseball team left town in 2000. But Zarthar remains confident despite that history.
“We have high expectations for attendance here in Fayetteville next year and beyond,” he said. “They'll have fun in our stadium. It all becomes part of the downtown experience. It will be a better place to go out, a better place to live and we expect everyone to enjoy coming downtown more when the stadium is present.”