With the announcement of a team name for the Gastonia Honey Hunters (independent; Atlantic League) and a new downtown Gastonia ballpark almost completed, city officials and fans are looking forward to the 2021 season.
The new downtown ballpark originally launched as a summer-collegiate project to replace Sims Legion Park, longtime home to Legion, Minor League and summer-collegiate ball in town. But when city officials looked at the potential impact of a new ballpark, they decided to target pro baseball. (They also lost summer-collegiate ball along the way: the Gastonia Grizzlies moved to Spartanburg, S.C., and historic Duncan Park in the offseason.)
“Originally, we were working with Jesse Cole who was the owner of the Gastonia Grizzlies,” said Pendulum Founding Principal Architect Jonathan Cole. “We did some very high-level, conceptual documents for him to get a feel for what it might take to get the project done. That kind of went dark for five to six years.”
The city saw the excitement around the Grizzlies and endeavored on a new-ballpark plan to anchor downtown development, resulting in the FUSE multi-use complex, with the ballpark anchoring additional development. Gastonia City Manager Michael Peoples says the team is the catalyst to invest in that area of town.
“Our plans evolved from the results of those studies. We started looking for land to purchase that was going to be the right fit. The city ended up purchasing 16 acres. About seven acres are being used for the ballpark facility and the rest is to maximize the opportunity for private development around it.”
Building A Ballpark
Kansas City-based Pendulum was chosen to be the architecture firm on the project. The firm has previously worked on projects like Dunkin’ Donuts Park, home of the Hartford Yard Goats (Class AA, Eastern League) and CoolToday Park, spring-training home of the Atlanta Braves.
Cole said the firm had a really good schedule for the project.
“I think we had about eight to 10 months to design it and then construction is 18 months,” Cole said. “They’re on track and maybe a little bit ahead of schedule for the ballpark. The field is in. Most of the interior finishes are being done now. The parking lot is built. I think we start officially punching out the last part of the park in mid-January.”
Because construction has been earmarked as essential business, the timeline was not affected by the pandemic.
“Construction never stopped. I think Rodgers Builders have done a nice job of considering the health and safety of their workers too. They have check-ins on site, understand where the workers are coming from, and have created bubbles for them.”
The design of the FUSE development takes inspiration from several historic buildings in the area.
“Gastonia has a lot of old mills. The design style was really based on the rhythm of an old mill building,” Cole said. “It’s the same brick color as the Trenton mill. It’s the same kind of contrast between the light stucco and the darker brick.”
In addition to reflecting the community, economic opportunities were a big deciding factor on certain design elements. The city asked for the public’s help to make those choices.
“We had at least three public input meetings in our conference center. We had over 100 participants attend each meeting which is really good. We asked them what they would like to see not only in the facility but in the district itself,” Peoples said. “We cut out partials from blocks that we could market for private development.”
Cole said certain parts of the ballpark look unfinished but that private development will bring them to life.
“When you look at the overall design, it kind of looks like it has a lot of missing teeth because of those development paths that stick into the site,” Cole said. “If you look beyond today and look down the road, it’s all going to fill in.”
For example, a restaurant in center field.
“There’s a center-field beer garden that’s been designed to have an occupiable rooftop. In phase two, there’s a site behind it that can be for a standard restaurant. We had to design forward to accommodate everything so in the future, you’re not tearing things up as you add to them.”
So what can fans expect in the new ballpark?
Cole said the ballpark has been built to create lands and destinations.
Behind home plate, there’s a VIP tower that takes you up to the main concourse and also hosts a banquet space. Down the left-field line, cabana suites can be arranged from one big space all the way down to six individual spaces. There’s a play area, two party decks, and a banquet space that can accommodate anywhere from 250 to 300 people.
With the team joining the Atlantic League, several parts of the park had to meet certain regulations.
“One of the things we had to make sure was addressed was the outfield fence. It’s approximately 305 feet to the left-field foul pole when it was originally designed,” said David Martin, the Chief Operating Officer for the team. “We put a 24-foot chain link fence that runs from left field to left center field. It’s not green but it’s our own littler version of the Green Monster. We also looked at more space in the locker rooms.”
Because the FUSE development is meant to be a mixed-use facility, the seating bowl was reworked where it can host multiple events and still offer fans the perfect seat.
“Traditionally, you’d have like 15 rows behind home plate. This facility has a total of six rows. It feels like you’re closer to the field,” Cole said. “We wanted to push the seating down the right field line because we can also accommodate soccer or football. We wanted it to feel like if you’re at one of those games, you still feel like you have prime seating on the 50-yard line or are in the middle of the soccer pitch.”
“We’re also looking at hosting lacrosse games or even three-on-three basketball tournaments,” Martin said. “We have a beautiful 4,000-square-foot club on the second level with great views of the ballpark where we’ll be able to do smaller concerts. We feel like we have a special facility.”
Breathing New Life into the Community
The new ballpark is the catalyst for the FUSE district. Peoples says the ballpark cost about $30 million but that the city is also investing money into improving infrastructure in the area.
“There’s been significant investment in streetscape work. Utility lines are being converted from overhead to underground. Water lines are being improved, sidewalks are being added, and everything else you need to create the environment you want around such a huge investment in a facility,” Peoples said. “There’s been probably an additional $8 million spent to tie the infrastructure surrounding the facility back to downtown.”
Private development is a huge economic booster, and the city has seen examples of projects happening because of the FUSE district.
“In the 16 acres the city purchased, there’s a 100-year-old textile building that is being converted into 84 apartments. It should be finished by the end of 2021. There’s an old Coca-Cola bottling building. We will close on that property with a local developer to turn it into a mixed-use project that will probably have offices, retail spaces, and more apartments or condos,” Peoples said. “And one of the buildings in that Coca-Cola complex will now become a brewery. They are getting ready to begin construction. We’ll see it continuing in waves. The FUSE has been lit and the catalyst project is that multi-use facility.”
While some things may go unnoticed during a pandemic, Peoples says there has been enormous interest in the project from the community.
“We’ve built and renovated water treatment plants and spent more money, but this facility for economic development is the largest the city has even undertaken. There’s been huge attention to this project. It has had a lot of fanfare, excitement, and community support.”
Martin said he thinks the community will be impressed by not only the new facility but by the level of play.
“The Gastonia Grizzlies were part of the [summer collegiate Coastal Plain League] and played about 25 home games. We’re going to play 70,” Martin said. “In the Atlantic League, a lot of our players are former Major League Baseball players or Double-A and Triple-A guys looking for another chance to make the big leagues.”
A Perfect Partnership
Brandon Bellamy is leading the team ownership group, and his Velocity Companies is partnering with the city on development around the ballpark.
His background in property development is helpful as the project continues to evolve.
“I think he is absolutely a perfect fit,” Peoples said. “You not only want to invest in a team to play baseball or invest in managing a facility but also in bringing other events to the city and investing in those private parcels to drive the economy.”
And Bellamy is looking forward to working with city officials.
“When we learned of this incredible project, we realized it was an opportunity not just to own a team but also to connect with a community that deserves to be showcased,” he said in a press statement. “The City of Gastonia has a strong entrepreneurial history and we are excited to be part of its continued growth.”
Cole said having Bellamy on board is a smart decision by the city but he’s not surprised because officials have looked ahead from the start.
“He is a developer. To bring someone in who is also a team owner, I think you’re sort of looking ahead and sealing your future. If anyone can do it, he can,” Cole said. “My hat is off to the city staff and the mayor because they’ve been pretty forward-thinking. I think their vision has always been a little bit ahead of its time. The city has a vision. People put their neck on the line to say this can work. For it to be working, says a lot.”
The team is already reaching out to fans as they get ready to launch in 2021.
“There are a lot of avid baseball fans in Gastonia,” Martin said. “We want to be very involved in the community. We have initiatives to create those initial relationships and partnerships. We’ve signed a multi-year lease and we’re going to be here a very, very long time. We’re working towards having a competitive product on the field and hope to bring a championship to Gastonia.”
All that’s left is to prepare to welcome fans. With the pandemic, it has been challenging but the city has been keeping people in the loop as much as possible.“It’s really hard to invite the community over to see the progress on the facility. We’ve done our best,” Peoples said. “We have a 24/7 camera on the construction site with time-lapse videos. We have posted pictures of the progress with the artificial turf being installed and the scoreboard being brought in. We’re excited for people to come out and enjoy what’s being built for them.”
Images courtesy city of Gastonia.