The Wichita Wind Surge (Class AAA; Pacific Coast League) are gearing up for the opening of Riverfront Stadium, a new ballpark that marks the return of affiliated MiLB action to the city.
(Editor’s Note: Interviews for this story were conducted before the announced delays of the 2020 MLB and MiLB seasons because of the ongoing coronavirus crisis. Before the delayed seasons were announced, Riverfront Stadium was scheduled to host the Wind Surge’s home opener on April 14.)
Riverfront Stadium is replacing venerable Lawrence-Dumont Stadium as home to baseball in the Kansas community—a tall order to fill. The 1934 WPA-era ballpark featured a treasure trove of baseball history, but Riverfront Stadium not only acknowledges that history but also honors the city’s heritage with a design that echoes the Delano neighborhood.
“This ballpark is on the west side of the river across from downtown and will have an unbelievable view from home plate towards that area with the high-rise buildings in focus,” said DLR Group Senior Associate Tom Tingle, project manager for Riverfront Stadium. “The Delano neighborhood is just north of the stadium and it has an architectural flavor with the brick type and the color of the steel. We tried to use that as an inspiration for the overall ballpark itself. There is darker brick, black brick, and steel that’s being painted black.”
Eagle-eyed fans can also spot nods to the aviation industry around the ballpark, providing subtle homages to the Wichita’s history as an aircraft manufacturing hub.
“We didn’t make a huge, over-the-top gesture to the aviation industry which is part of Wichita’s heritage with so many plane manufacturers here, but we made some nice little references to them in the architecture,” Tingle said.
Wichita’s rich baseball history of baseball will be honored in different ways, from a selfie wall down the first-base line paying homage to all the teams that have played in Wichita, to public art, and bike racks themed with Wichita flags. Even the fencing was considered. As fans enter the ballpark, it looks like a baseball is coming towards them and as fans leave, it looks like a baseball is heading away from them. The design firms were open to ideas which came to life around Riverfront Stadium.
“When you watch the design team take an idea that the team has created or the team has envisioned for a space, they take it, use their imagination, and turns it into a gathering place that gives everybody a reason to be excited,” said Lou Schwechheimer, Managing General Partner of the Wichita Wind Surge.
A Quick Turnaround
Time was key, with the new ballpark needing to be built in under two years to accommodate the relocating New Orleans Baby Cakes. Four different bids were put in to build the new ballpark under a design-build method, a different approach from most ballpark construction projects.
“The majority of these types of projects are delivered where the owner will hire the architect separately. They’ll hire a construction manager separately and they’ll hire an owner’s rep separately and then you all collectively work together,” Tingle said. “Because they were really late in formalizing the final agreement to have the team move to Wichita, they decided to use what’s called the design-build method.”
This method meant that firms interested in the project teamed up with a builder and an architect in place as part of the bid. The group that was awarded the contract included the DLR Group, JE Dunn Construction, EBY Construction, Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture and Professional Engineering Consultants. With the team in place, it was time to do what many doubted could be achieved.
“We teamed up with SJCF, which is one of the preeminent firms in Wichita. They served as the architect of record for the project. We were associate architect to them representing experience in Minor League Baseball,” Tingle said. “Normally, the design part would be nine months at a minimum and we split the project up into parts between the two architectural firms. This process usually takes 22-24 months by the end of the project and we did it in 16. There were a lot of people who didn’t think we could get it done in that period of time.”
A big part of being able to achieve the goal of Opening Day 2020 was trust, as project officials have had to complete the ballpark on a tight timetable.
“I look back at my calendar and our kickoff meeting was in December 2018. We broke ground on February 13, 2019 on this $80-million project. Normally, a design firm would need a minimum of six to 10 months prior to groundbreaking on a project of this scale and we started in two months,” said Scott Sherry, the Vice President and National Director of Sports for JE Dunn Construction. “It’s been a very unique schedule. When we interviewed for the project in November 2018, we were very honest and up front with the city and team saying you’re asking us to achieve something that’s almost impossible. We all are going to have to come together as one team and one entity. We’re all going to have to be honest, air out dirty laundry, and hold each other accountable. Everyone has lived up to their promise in the kickoff meeting.”
Every two weeks, members from all parties involved met up to discuss new ideas, talk about the project’s progress, and troubleshoot solutions to issues that might arise. Transparency and communication also sped up the process.
“Cooperation was huge because we were able to get a lot of decisions made quickly which was required to make schedule. The relationship between the city and the team was really helpful to the process. They all really worked together,” Tingle said. “Like any project, a few things that were contested but we made decisions fairly quickly.”
Riverfront Stadium was also designed so that multiple construction teams could be working around the project without anyone working on top of anyone else, helping to speed up the process.
“With a baseball stadium, there is a lot of area to work on. Construction was staggered with individuals in different areas, so we weren’t also on top of each other,” Sherry said. “Manpower on-site hit close to around 280 men and women on site at any given time during the crunch time of the project with anywhere from 25-35 contractors that are all participating on the project,” he added.
Support from the community and people involved with the project helped keep everyone motivated through the long nights, weekends, and overtime that was put into Riverfront Stadium.
“The city and the baseball team have really embraced the trades on site. I haven’t been involved in too many projects where the city or baseball team or ownership group takes a lot of time out of their days to thank the trade partners,” Sherry said. “The baseball team held a mini-reception on Fridays to thank the trade partners for all their hard work. That goes a long way to keeping up morale on a project with such a tight deadline.”
Pampering Fans and Players Both
Riverfront Stadium was built as a multi-purpose facility with the ability to host baseball games, soccer games, football games, concerts, festivals and special events. Another focus was providing top-notch facilities for the players and development staff.
“The amenities for the players are second-to-none. From the locker size, locker room size, weight room, training room, strength and conditioning room, the player lounge, and the media room, all the amenities are to enhance player development,” Schwechheimer said. “I truly think we have raised the bar in a lot of ways. Every aspect of this facility is major league. Every player, either home or visitor, is going to be proud to say they played in Wichita. I think we have exceeded the standards and created something where every player who comes through Wichita is going to love the atmosphere.”
The first groups of fans to have seen the project have been blown away.
“We’ve had two dates of stadium tours. It’s amazing when you walk fans from all over the state of Kansas and Wichita up one of the entrance pavilions and they see the grass and seats for the first time. It’s a wow moment. It’s almost knee-buckling. They’re so excited.”
The ballpark will be just one of the projects as Riverfront Stadium has kicked off the riverfront renaissance.
“The other thing that is occurring is that we were involved in the early stages of developing the master plan surrounding the ballpark,” Tingle said. “They’re probably going to do at least three major buildings. They’re thinking about a hotel, an office building, and residential areas but also developing an entertainment district along the river. It’s an overall development of that side of town.”
With Opening Day just around the corner, it’s time for fans to enjoy the hard work put into building Riverfront Stadium.
“I think when the city has the opportunity to open the doors and spectators walk in, I really think everyone will see the crown jewel the town has now,” Sherry said. “I always love Opening Days. I love when we’re there with our trade partners and look forward to seeing the men and women that worked on the stadium there with their kids. They point out what they worked on and tell their kids what mommy and daddy have been doing the past few months.”
As for Schwechheimer, it doesn’t get better than that.
“This ballpark stands poised to take its place as one of the iconic ballparks in all of America. I can’t wait for the world to see it.”
Image, tweeted March 2, courtesy Cookie Rojas, SVP Sports & Entertainment Ventures Wichita Wind Surge.
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