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Savannah columnist: Let the Sand Gnats go

Savannah Sand GnatsIf Savannah loses professional baseball in the form of the Savannah Sand Gnats (Low Class A: Sally League), it won’t be because team ownership didn’t work to bring the community a new ballpark.

This harsh column by Adam Van Brimmer of shows a fairly parochial attitude toward efforts to bring a new ballpark to Savannah: that Hardball Capital, owner of the Sand Gnats, was too aggressive in seeking a replacement for Grayson Stadium. Now, we love classic ballparks, and Grayson certainly is a classic ballpark. But Grayson is landlocked and economically outdated. While there have been some improvements to the facility, the long-term future of pro baseball in Savannah isn’t in Grayson Stadium.

Hardball Capital is annoying and persistent, just like the bugs. The Atlanta-based group began quietly lobbying for a new ballpark the day they purchased the franchise five years ago, even as many around town told them support for the idea would reflect the Gnats’ poor attendance figures.

Hardball took their cuts anyway. They invested in Grayson and significantly improved the fan experience to show their commitment. They brought in management familiar to Savannah, led by John Katz. They built up goodwill by the Thirsty Thursdays keg-full.

Hardball swung for the fences last year. They lobbied the city to use special purpose local option sales tax money to build a riverfront ballpark….

Hardball Capital suddenly found itself in the same position as its predecessors. Move or sell. Or threaten to relocate in an effort to strong arm Savannah into reconsidering the new ballpark.

It doesn’t seem to us that Hardball Capital has been, well, playing hardball with Savannah. There’s been no public threats to move, no outrageous demands. And even Van Brimmer admits that the team has invested in the team and the ballpark. Five years of discussions about a new ballpark should be enough for any team owner to conclude whether a community can support pro baseball.

Now, it’s not as though Hardball Capital doesn’t have a lot of credibility when it comes to the economic impact of new ballparks: the firm also owns the Fort Wayne TinCaps (Low Class A; Midwest League) and put together a public/private partnership for Parkview Field, a new ballpark that not only boosted the team’s bottom line, it also transformed downtown Fort Wayne and had a very measurable economic impact on the area. Parkview Field is arguably the biggest success story in minor-league baseball in the last decade when it comes to returns on investment both for investors and a city government.

Hardball Capital proposed much of the same for Savannah, using Parkview Field as a model. That approach, apparently, has been rejected and a proposal for a new downtown ballpark using an existing tax all but dead, leading the team to reportedly pursue a new ballpark project in Columbia, S.C., according to reports from that city. Despite what Van Brimmer thinks, MiLB teams aren’t casually relocated: the emphasis is on giving cities chances to retian baseball, and five years of negotiations certainly would qualify as an effort by Hardball Capital to keep the Sand Gnats in Savannah.

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