Greenville stadium visit offers good food for thought on Project Jackson

  • Posted: 5/19/2013 3:01 PM
    6/1/2013 5:48 PM
Greenville stadium visit offers good food for thought on Project Jackson
Getting acquainted Saturday afternoon with Fluor Field, the Greenville Drive baseball team's home turf, are North Augusta City Council members Ken McDowell, left, and Fletcher Dickert.

Greenville stadium visit offers good food for thought on Project Jackson

The western side of Greenville got intense attention on Saturday from North Augusta City Council and several other local leaders, with a particular focus on a baseball stadium and how it might relate to the proposal for Project Jackson.

The entire Council, after a two-hour afternoon bus ride, got a tour of the stadium and some neighboring facilities, in a search for answers about successful development and the proposed North Augusta project, which has a baseball stadium as its centerpiece.

Upscale housing, retail stores and a conference center are among other major elements, with Hammond’s Ferry and The River Club as nearby neighborhoods.

Project Jackson was revealed to the public in December and has been hailed by some as a likely economic boon with tremendous potential, but blasted by others as a dangerous idea that would cause huge problems in such areas as parking, safety and congestion.

The proposal for financing, with a mixture of public and private backing, has been a major obstacle.

As proposed, Project Jackson would include a $150 million mixed-use development, with a 225-room, $60 million hotel resort; a 20,000-square-foot conference center, structured parking for 900 and a $28-million City-owned sports and entertainment facility (“the baseball field,” to some). The proposal also includes restaurants, 225 luxury apartments, 75 town homes, 40,000 square feet of office space and a retail area of about 30,000 square feet.

Some of the project’s opponents have said they favor much of the proposal, with the major exception of the baseball facility, due to concerns about such things as congestion and crime. Some project backers have responded by saying the baseball facility is the overall package’s core and that the other elements will not materialize without the field in place.

The Greenville Drive, a minor-league baseball team, has had Fluor Field as its home turf since 2006, situated on the site of a former lumber yard, in an area that had been on a downward slide in recent years, according to some observers.

City Administrator Todd Glover, after the visit, commented, “If we are able to do something on our riverfront, we would want it to be of a quality similar to what Greenville has done.”

Councilman Pat Carpenter said the overall experience gave her “more confidence about Project Jackson.” She gave an upbeat review to the stadium’s entertainment options (in addition to the actual games) for kids and adults alike.

“I just feel like there can be a solution to a lot of the problems that we’ve been discussing,” she said. “I think Greenville has just done their homework before they built this, and I just think everything was just about perfect.”

Carpenter was particularly impressed, she said, with the Drive’s arrangement to share the parking lots of several local churches within a few blocks of the field, so that baseball fans could park in spaces that would otherwise be unused for several nights each week.

A fair comparison?

Begging to differ was River Club resident Scott Gudith, a businessman who has been among Project Jackson’s more active opponents. He and his wife, Gina Reddy, also traveled on the bus and took part in the tour.

“We were asked to represent our homeowners’ association,” he said. “We had a wonderful time. We loved the stadium. We loved the surroundings and loved everything about it, but we are still of the mindset that in no way, shape or form can you compare downtown North Augusta to the west end of Greenville, South Carolina. Just worlds apart.”

He and his wife, he said, walked a few blocks around the stadium and asked questions about such concerns as crime, traffic, rent, home prices and restaurants, and noticed that the roads around the stadium had four lanes, unlike the roads leading in and out of Hammond’s Ferry and The River Club. He also named light poles (“300 feet up, or more”) as major problems.

The visit also included about two hours in a catered suite on the first-base line, with a view of the field as well as much of downtown Greenville. Councilman Ken McDowell said it was interesting that only three of the stadium’s 18 suites are set aside for nightly rentals and the rest are reserved for several years in advance.

“The lack of light pollution around the outside” also caught his eye, he said. “That’s something I was looking for. I went up there especially to see that. The parking situation I wish I’d gone out and walked around outside the stadium. We’d have liked to have seen more of that.”

The stadium was built on 6.5 acres, “which is almost identical to the stadium footprint proposed for North Augusta,” McDowell said. “The architect did state that they would have preferred eight acres, but the actual stamp is 6.5 acres.”

Enthusiasm and entertainment

Mayor Lark Jones, in remarks on Monday afternoon, said he had just come from speaking to a civic club in Augusta, with 100-plus members, and the topic of primary interest was Project Jackson.

“That’s what they wanted to know about. They were all very enthusiastic about it.”

Recalling the Saturday trip, he remarked on the changes that have occurred since Lake Olmstead Stadium was built, versus Greenville’s facility.

“Minor-league baseball today is now about 50 percent baseball and 50 percent entertainment,” he said, citing on-field dance contests as an example.

Jones said the experience provided good food for thought in terms of possible placement of condominiums, apartment buildings and The Family Y, all of which have been considered as elements of Project Jackson.

“I think it was also important to see that they did not create a single parking place for a stadium that has 4,500 seats,” the mayor said. “That is one of the major issues that people have raised.”

Chuck Smith, an Aiken County Councilmember representing North Augusta, commented, “I was especially impressed with the vision of the group that put it together and the cooperation that the municipality provided, how that helped revitalize the entire area.”

Options for outdoor exploration were limited by a rain delay of about an hour, so the visitors got to see the stadium crew respond to a downpour by rolling out protective gear to cover the entire infield and then rolling it back once the downpour was done.

Cleanliness and “courage”

The overall facility was “very clean,” in McDowell’s assessment. He said, “That stood out to me. ... There were an awful lot of people with families there. I thought it was very pleasing to the eye the stadium as a whole which was something of a surprise. It flowed quite well. I thought it was well set up.”

Smith said that “it took a lot of courage” for Greenville’s decision-makers to choose to build a stadium in that location. “Their risk paid off.”