The Kannapolis Cannon Ballers (Low A; Sally League) had a busy off-season, unveiling a new name and finishing construction on a new ballpark and were working hard to welcome fans to Opening Day at Atrium Health Ballpark on April 16. Then the coronavirus pandemic arrived to shut down the country.
“We were really excited about opening the ballpark. It has taken a little wind out of our sails,” said Scotty Brown, Operating Partner of the Kannapolis Cannon Ballers. “With the stay-at-home orders, it has limited our staff’s ability to work on things they would normally be working on.”
While baseball might not be taking place, construction crews are still working on the new ballpark, and Brown says it will be in tip-top shape when it opens.
“Everything was deadline-driven for the ballpark opening. Then everything was cancelled,” Brown said. “However, we’ve never stopped in terms of construction. Construction is an essential industry and we have been able to continue things and are way ahead of the game. It’s allowed construction and design teams to have a better timeframe for things to be perfect.”
For Assistant City Manager Eddie Smith, a brand-new ballpark has been on his mind for over 10 years.
“Back in 2007, I commented to the general manager [of the Kannapolis Intimidators] at that time that we really needed to think about building a new ballpark and moving it downtown,” Smith said. “I remember the former ballpark was once quoted as being conveniently located next to nothing. It’s next to Interstate 85, but there is no development around it and it’s three miles from downtown. It was unrealistic at that time.”
Enter David Murdock from Dole Foods. For many years, the largest business in Kannapolis was the Cannon Mills Corporation, founded by James William Cannon, who also founded the city of Kannapolis. At one time, it was the largest textile mill in the world. In 2003, then-owner Pillowtex went bankrupt, and Murdock’s company bought the 1-million-square-foot complex for $6.4 million, according to the Charlotte Business Journal. That purchase also came with a lot of land—including downtown Kannapolis.
“Around 2015, our city council made the bold decision to move forward and purchase our entire downtown,” Smith said. “We were looking at purchasing 54 acres and it was owned by Murdock. We approached him, made the offer, and told him our vision for downtown. He liked our ideas and said consider downtown yours and move forward with your plan.”
While a new ballpark was in the back of Smith’s mind, the City of Kannapolis did a study to figure out if that would be the best option for an anchor in downtown.
“We began exploring ideas for what the downtown game-changer might be. We explored the idea of a children’s museum and a performing arts center,” Smith said. “In our research, we discovered that a performing arts center and children’s museum doesn’t generate the type of private investment that a ballpark does.”
Using the Field of Dreams philosophy, they built it and the private investment came.
“As soon as we announced the purchase of downtown and that we were building a new ballpark, we immediately had investors contact us saying they wanted to invest in downtown, whether that be restaurants or office space or apartments. That’s playing out now as we speak.”
New businesses surrounding the area that are being planned and/or are under construction are a 285-unit apartment complex with a 400-space parking deck two blocks from the ballpark, a brewery, a hotel, and new office buildings. That doesn’t include other projects planned by the City of Kannapolis.
“All total, the city has spent $100 million to reinvent downtown,” Smith said. “We spent $53 million on the ballpark, $14 million on a parking deck, $30 million redoing our streetscaping, and we are adding a linear park downtown that’s actually the front porch going downtown towards the ballpark.”
Constructing A Classic
With Atrium Health Ballpark becoming a reality, Populous was chosen as the architect on the project and Barton Malow was selected for construction.
“Populous was a great fit. They understood what we were looking for. It was a great instant partnership,” Smith said. “We also had them participate in helping us select a contractor. Because we were going to also be doing infrastructure improvement like sewer lines and storm drains, we chose Barton Malow.”
Populous said the same thing about working with the City of Kannapolis.
“From the beginning as we pursued this project and got to know the city officials, we felt a really strong connection to them,” said Jason Ford, Senior Associate at Populous and the Project Manager at Atrium Health Ballpark. “We’ve had a great relationship collaborating with them. We always felt they were in our corner. It was easy to talk to them when things came up. We joke with them that whenever they are ready to build a football stadium or an arena, we’d love to work with them again.”
That relationship helped whenever ownership of the team changed hands in September 2018.
“The interesting piece is there was a different team owner when we started. They sold the club during the design process,” Ford said. “The city is our client, but at some point the team came in and had input on the design as well. Temerity and the Cannon Ballers became really involved with us late in the game but we were able to make the changes they asked for. They didn’t ask for too much. Based on our experience, we can foresee a lot of trends and get those in the ballparks, and we did a good job programming those from the beginning.”
Smith, Ford and other officials toured several ballparks around the country to get ideas on what options they had and what features they should include in the ballpark.
“We toured no less than seven ballparks around the country to better understand what was being designed, why it was being designed, and asked front offices if they had a chance to do it over again, what would they do differently,” Smith said. “Some of the ballparks were the [homes of the] Charlotte Knights, the Reading Fightin Phils, Lehigh Valley IronPigs, and SunTrust Park in Atlanta. When you visit some of the newer ballparks, the expectation from the public is to be entertained in different ways.”
Atrium Health Ballpark will celebrate local history and industry in the ballpark design.
“Kannapolis is the birthplace of Dale Earnhardt, and with the team being named the Intimidators at the time, we proposed lots of NASCAR-themed things,” said Ford. “We learned that wasn’t something the city was really looking to bring over to the new ballpark. The city of Kannapolis has a strong history in industry, especially with Cannon Mills. The history of the area was what they wanted to highlight in this project.”
In addition to celebrating local history, the ballpark will fit into the city’s vision of revitalizing downtown by focusing on foot traffic.
“While there will be ample parking around downtown, we wanted to focus on making the ballpark pedestrian-friendly,” Ford said. “They find their way to businesses around the area, visit them, go watch a baseball game, leave the ballpark, and hopefully patronize these same businesses after the game.”
Entertainment value was also a big focus for Brown and the Cannon Ballers, who are looking to bring fun experiences to the fans and not just from the baseball game itself.
“We think one of the things we’ve built around the logo and the design process is we want this to feel like a carnival, state fair, or circus atmosphere,” Brown said. “We want that to be what our fans experience. We will have classic carnival games on the concourse like ring toss, the duck pond, and whiffle ball. These are games that anyone can play. We just wanted to bring a different element so that the show around the field is just as robust as the show on the field.”
Atrium Health Ballpark will also have a 360-degree concourse, a videoboard in left-center field (25 feet tall by 50 feet long), multiple ribbon boards, an outfield bar for 150 people, a left-field picnic area for 300 people, a right-field terrace, loge boxes, eight suites, the 6,000-square-foot Kinetic Club (a premium club space that can be rented out for events, with seating for 250, and the Sky Lounge. The seating bowl is also completely protected by netting.
There is also a dugout suite (shown below) accommodating 40 people. Perhaps the more unique feature is that is goes up the player’s tunnel, sits 100 feet behind the field itself, and overlooks the two indoor batting tunnels so fans can see players hit before and/or during the game.
If you happen to see shipping containers around Atrium Health Ballpark, that’s part of the design as well.
“We have a satellite snack bar system where the units are refurbished shipping containers. These units are 40-feet-long by 8-feet-deep and feature seven ticket windows, which should be more than enough to handle our walkup crowds,” Brown said. “It’s a really cool look and ties into the interior finishes. Our theme was industrial chic. Since this was a mill area and had lots of industrial activity, we wanted to keep that vibe for fans as they come into the ballpark.”
One big change for the new ballpark? The addition of WiFi.
“We’ve got a great partner in Kinetic by Windstream, who is one of our founding providers, and they will provide wireless access for the fans. We have almost 10 gigabytes to allow fans to stay connected and show off their experience in the park.”
The seating bowl was up for discussion as well in terms of directionality.
“In Intimidators Stadium, the sun sat in left field. The entire grandstand was baked in sunlight until about 8:30, which made for a steamy and smelly experience at the ballpark. With the way design has evolved over the years, the architects design parks so that the sun sets behind you. By game time, our seating bowl is in the shade. With the Carolina heat, that’s really a big plus to the fan experience.”
Smith said they also looked at the angle of the seating bowl so fans weren’t overwhelmed with the size and amount of seats.
“We had a lot of conversations about the angling of the seating bowl as opposed to the angling of the seats. You don’t feel like you’re lost in a sea of seats. It’s a very intimate ballpark and several people came through and said that it feels like home.”
Perhaps the biggest entertainment project in the new ballpark is the Kid’s Play Zone—which is absolutely massive.
“The Kid’s Zone is 20,000 square feet. We started out with a budget of $340,000 for this area. Now that it’s nearing completion, it’s about $850,000,” Smith said. “We were below budget for the entire ballpark project and had a good contingency line item and had allowances in place that allowed us to make changes along the way if we needed to, like adding to the Kid’s Zone.”
The Kid’s Zone has a rope-and-cable play structure on site, which is one of only two in North Carolina, as well as a passive water features that includes 16 nozzles spraying water that are foot-activated.
Atrium Health Ballpark is not only a minor-league baseball stadium: It will be operated like a city park, open for public use throughout the year.
“One of the ways the council and constituency was convinced to undertake this ambitious project is this ballpark will be open 363 days a year,” Brown said. “The hours will be basically from sunrise to sunset. There are lots of vistas and pleasant places to sit and bring a picnic lunch and really enjoy yourself.”
“We’ve been really proud of our relationship with Temerity Baseball and the Cannon Ballers. It wasn’t lost on them that we were spending $53 million to build them a new facility,” Smith said. “They’ve embraced that this facility is more about baseball, which is why they were open to having the park open. If yoga class breaks out on concourse near the bar, great. The more people downtown, the better.”
Now all that’s left to do is welcome the community to their ballpark.
“When they heard about this ambitious ballpark and that the downtown area was going to be completely reinvented, there was some skepticism,” Brown said. “In the beginning it was like hey, that’ll never happen. Now that it has, I think people are blown away. This was an ambitious and fun project to be involved with—and we can’t wait to share it with the community.”
Photos courtesy Kannapolis Cannon Ballers.