A modern ballpark must do more than just host a baseball game: it must serve the community on many levels, including economically. Atrium Health Ballpark has been everything Kannapolis and the Kannapolis Cannon Ballers (Single-A; Sally League) planned, and its success is why we’ve selected it as our 2022 Ballpark of the Year.
We first previewed the facility in May 2020 after the pandemic led to the entire season being canceled. But that didn’t mean the community didn’t get to use the ballpark.
“Even during COVID, people were able to walk around the park or bring their kids to the playground,” said Kannapolis Cannon Ballers owner Andy Sandler. “We had 150,000 people in the ballpark before we ever had a baseball game.”
It also allowed the team and the city to see what it would look like to host events other than baseball at the facility.
“That was the silver lining of the pandemic,” said Kannapolis City Manager Mike Legg. “It was a bigger trial period to see if the facility was ready to serve that dual purpose. That turned out to be part of the charm because people had access to it all day long, on the weekends, and sometimes in the evenings.”
It’s also led to new discoveries.
“It’s a lesson probably for a lot of facilities that your customers aren’t always the ones you know about,” Legg said. “For example, the ones you don’t know about might be someone walking around town and has never been to a game before, but they end up walking through the ballpark and thinking about it.”
That also made April 2021, when the ballpark officially opened for the Cannon Ballers, unique.
“This was different, because usually that’s the first time that people are able to see the project for the first time, walk around, and take it in,” said Jason Michael Ford, Project Manager for Populous. “When the ballpark finally opened, it was a big sigh of relief that we had all finally made it. There was a lot of emotion.”
The whole project was a gamble for both the city and the team. Atrium Health Ballpark was the replacement for the former Fieldcrest Cannon Stadium / Intimidators Stadium, which opened in 1995. It was a very basic facility, sorely in need of more in terms of modern fan amenities like extended concessions and shade. Plus, its location was unlikely to generate any additional economic activity.
So, when the city was debating an investment in a new ballpark, generating development and economic activity was a priority.
“When we bought the team in 2018, it was in real trouble,” Sandler said. “And there’s no question in my mind that if Kannapolis hadn’t built a new stadium and did what it did, that team would be in real jeopardy. Now, it’s one of the crown jewels of the minor leagues.”
And that’s something that Legg said many businesses told the city when they chose to move or open their locations in the downtown area where the ballpark is located.
“The reaction has been astounding. To say it turned out to be an anchor is probably an understatement,” Legg said. “Most of them have said if it wasn’t for the ballpark, we wouldn’t be here.”
The City of Kannapolis was also bold when taking a chance on the ballpark and downtown area. The city invested $100 million to transform downtown, including $53 million for Atrium Health Ballpark.
“The vision the city had when they purchased the downtown sites was a big factor in a successful project,” said Ford. “Without the vision from the city, it would have been more difficult.”
“If you think about the risks, the mayor and city council took a big risk putting that much money in a ballpark with the faith that it would become a catalyst for growth,” Sandler said. “It turned out to be a good bet for them and a big bet for us, and they’ve been great partners throughout the whole process.”
Since the ballpark opened in 2021, the team has hosted more than 114 events other than baseball games and more than 40,000 people have attended those special events. And while attendance is historically the highest in year one, Kannapolis saw a 19 percent increase in total fans coming to games in 2022. Construction is still undergoing as the downtown area is seeing a boom.
“Things are taking off. The apartment complex and parking garage opened. There’s a new brewery under construction right now,” Ford said. “Developers are continuing now on ballpark pad sites that were part of the original plans.”
“We’re also working on Stadium Lofts, which will have a tavern, the baseball team offices, store, and 43 apartments,” Sandler said. “Then we’ve got three other projects and a hotel right behind it. It’s been great especially considering this is a challenging time to raise money for real estate development projects.”
The only issue now is parking, which is something Legg says the city is looking at addressing. But he says it’s worth it after seeing just how much has changed in Kannapolis over the last decade.
“That’s been the only growing pain for everybody since it’s a vastly different downtown than even just six years ago. That’s taking some getting used to. But the beauty is there’s another 100 acres north and south of downtown that are transitioning for additional development,” Legg said. “I can speak for our management team and city council that there are few opportunities in our careers to see something transform the way it has so far. It’s pretty unique. One of the most satisfying things is seeing older folks who have lived here for generations see our plans, get excited, and actually see the whole project completed. There can touch it and feel it and it’s a rare and special thing.”
Previous Ballpark of the Year Recipients
2021: Condron Family Ballpark, University of Florida
2019: Las Vegas Ballpark, Las Vegas Aviators
2018: SRP Park, Augusta GreenJackets
2017: Truist Park, Atlanta Braves
2016: Segra Park, Columbia Fireflies
2015: CHS Field, St. Paul Saints
2014: Southwest University Park, El Paso Chihuahuas
2013: PNC Field, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders
2011: Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, Arizona Diamondbacks/Colorado Rockies
2010: Target Field, Minnesota Twins
2009: Huntington Park, Columbus Clippers
2008: Coca-Cola Park, Lehigh Valley IronPigs