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August 19, 2014

Minor league baseball stadium coming to Utica

By Sarah Wojcik
C & G Staff Writer

» click to enlarge «
A rendering by Rochester-based General Sports and Entertainment shows a preliminary field view of the minor league ballpark. Visible in the background is the oval track at Eppler Junior High School.
A rendering by Rochester-based General Sports and Entertainment shows a preliminary front view of the minor league ballpark.
Utica Mayor Jacqueline Noonan throws the unofficial first pitch to Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel at the future site of Utica’s ballpark, located at Auburn Road and Moscone Drive.
Zain Masters, director of research and strategy for General Sports and Entertainment, speaks about the new development in downtown Utica, which could open as early as next spring, at a press conference Aug. 18.
 

Utica Mayor Jacqueline Noonan said that the recently unveiled ballpark planned for downtown Utica would be incomparable to any development yet seen in Macomb County and would use no money from the city’s general fund.

In a 4-2 vote Aug. 12, the Utica City Council approved a conditional land use request that would allow a Rochester-based company to construct an $8-10 million minor league baseball stadium on undeveloped land at the crossroads of Auburn Road and Moscone Drive.

The contract also calls for the company, General Sports and Entertainment LLC, to raze the dilapidated and never-finished housing development to the east across the Clinton River and, within three years, build retail and residential developments on that site. Noonan said the developments would bring in at least $65,000 to the city annually in taxes.

The Downtown Development Authority and GSE agreed to split the cost of a 500-space parking lot to service the ballpark while it operates from approximately 7-11 p.m. May-September and then serve as public parking the rest of the time. Plans also call for a pedestrian footbridge over the Clinton River from the lot to the stadium.

Noonan said the site of the stadium and parking lot are capped landfills, and the developers would comply with all rules and regulations pertaining to those brownfield sites. She added that the county’s Brownfield Redevelopment Authority committed $250,000 to both sides of the river.

GSE Director of Research and Strategy Zain Masters spoke for GSE owner Andrew Appleby. Masters said he was hopeful for the first pitch to take place May 15, 2015, but if the schedule proved too ambitious, then the first season would begin May 15, 2016.

He said the stadium would hold 2,500 fixed seats, and there would be the possibility of 18 suites — 12 patio suites and six at the top of the stadium, as well as some potential dugout suites behind home plate.

As for the league, Masters said GSE would form its own independent league with approximately three teams, each playing 48 games head-to-head against each other for a total of 72 games per season. Players, he said, would be recruited from nearby high schools and colleges, and GSE would pay them to play.

“This location is amazing just from its accessibility,” Masters said. “We love the city of Utica. It has the second-largest school district in the whole of Michigan. We want to provide an affordable family entertainment venue not only for minor league baseball.”

In the off-season, he said, the stadium could be used for city events, including fireworks, ice skating, soccer, football, walking groups for the elderly, championship games for local baseball teams and more.

The ground lease between the city and GSE allows for a 30-year lease at $1 per year, with two possible 10-year extensions, Noonan said. The Utica DDA bought both parcels of land for the back taxes, she said.

“We’re not looking to compete at all with the Tigers,” Masters said. “This is a whole different league, a whole different level of entertainment. We’re trying to create family entertainment, and we’re trying to increase the number of baseball fans.”

He added that GSE also would try to create a significant number of jobs — both stadium jobs and jobs at events the city operates.

The Utica DDA unanimously voted to support GSE, and the Planning Commission recommended the conditional land use in a 7-1 vote and the site plan in a unanimous vote.

Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel said the project was first brought to his attention within the last four years and that it was very difficult for him not to speak about it until the Aug. 12 City Council meeting.

“This is far greater than what I see with the Freedom Hill amphitheater,” Hackel said. “We are committed to work along with you to whatever extent you want us involved in planning into the future.”

City attorney James McGrail said that the ground lease requires GSE to take out performance bonds, so if anything goes sour with the development, the bond company would restore any abandoned structures to usable property.

Councilmen Kenneth Sikora and William Osladil raised concerns about the new development and both voted against granting conditional land use Aug. 12.

“There are costs to this project,” Sikora said. “I’ve seen great ideas come. I’ve seen a project that was supposed to save the city. It didn’t save the city and it cost us money. This could be great or it could kill us.”

He raised concerns about traffic, the trash in the stadium after events and the cost to the city if the project did not come to fruition. He added that he felt the tax base of the retail and residential development would not make up the dollars it would cost.

Osladil agreed that he did not see some of the guarantees made by GSE, and he said that Utica was running marginally on city finances.

“This is a pretty heavy-weighted thing for us as council people. We’re the ones who are going to have to answer,” Osladil said. “Being told not to talk about it because it was in executive session, I’ve not been able to do any due diligence except the last six days, and that has not been a lot.”

Councilwomen Faith Terenzi and Barbara Montag spoke in support of the development, as well as Police Chief David Faber, Department of Public Works Superintendent William Lange and Assessor Nancy Strehl.

“I truly believe that without risk there is not reward. Sometimes not taking the step is worse than taking the step and failing,” Terenzi said. “We need to stand up — it’s a great opportunity for Utica to get back on the map.”

Noonan said the city covered every mistake it has made in the past 31 years in the ground lease, and that the city must approve all of GSE’s plans before they go into effect.

For more information about General Sports and Entertainment, visit www.generalsports.com.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Sarah Wojcik at swojcik@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1029.