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Saturday, Nov 03 2012 10:00 PM

ROBERT PRICE: This stadium plan might just come off

By The Bakersfield Californian

Forgive me if I wait just a bit before buying season tickets to see the Bakersfield Blaze. I've been worked into a new-stadium frenzy before, only to be hurt in the end. City Manager Alan Tandy knows the feeling, too.

My skepticism is no reflection on the principals. If there's a guy in Bakersfield who's more can-do, more credible, more trust-inspiring, more don't-be-fooled-by-my-just-folks-demeanor than retired oilman Gene Voiland, I haven't met him. Chad Hathaway, the other half of the baseball team's refreshingly forward-thinking ownership group, has a youthful visage that represents a different sort of promise. No, I have no problem with the guys pulling the strings on this proposed stadium: A 3,500-seat ballpark that will serve as the cornerstone of Bakersfield Commons, a huge multi-use infill development that will eventually occupy the most desirable tract of open land in the city.

My skepticism is fueled solely by the many false starts that Bakersfield stadiums have experienced over the years. The most galling was probably the 1999-2000 proposal to build a city-financed stadium at what was then called the Bakersfield City Center -- and is now South Mill Creek.

Professed sports impresario Paul Crawford of Sacramento showed up one day with a developer-partner and pitched the idea. Tandy was on board; so was the city's baseball community as well as a good number of downtown business owners. Surely this would be the spark that would ignite the moribund central district. But a funny thing happened on the way to the opening pitch: Panattoni Construction of Sacramento, the company Crawford had identified as the primary builder of the 10,000-seat ballpark, called the newspaper to say they didn't know what we Bakersfield crazies were talking about. Ballpark? What ballpark?

Turned out the premature death of Crawford's folly was the best thing that could have happened to Bakersfield. Municipally funded baseball stadiums had started to die off like bugs on summer asphalt. The San Bernardino County city of Adelanto built a beautiful edifice for its High Desert Mavericks, then the California League affiliate of the San Diego Padres, and it was a huge hit -- for about a season and a half. Then the fans stopped coming, the tumbleweeds moved in and Adelanto found itself in deep, deep doo-doo.

A few years later essentially the same thing happened in Stockton, home of the Ports, owners of one of the Cal League's most storied traditions. Stockton built a delightful stadium largely on the municipal dime, the economy went south and the city eventually filed for bankruptcy. Other factors played roles in Stockton's meltdown, to be sure, but the stadium was a big part of it.

Bakersfield avoided all that, despite repeated attempts over many years to participate. That's called dodging a bullet.

The key difference here is that the new proposed Bakersfield ballpark will be entirely funded by private parties. As it should be. Voiland and Hathaway are in the process of enticing investors to help make the $20 million stadium a reality. The time seems right; the economy has pulled out of its nosedive and it's gaining speed. Heck, people tell us Bakersfield is a boomtown.

If I had a couple million (I don't) I'd have to consider the opportunity. Voiland Stadium won't simply be a playing field surrounded by hard plastic seats -- it'll be an experience. Baseball just happens to be the nominal entertainment. The principals envision a place that's equal parts picnic grounds, amusement park and sports bar, with retail stores and restaurants surrounding the facility. "If 50 percent of the people at the stadium know the score at the end of the game, you've failed," Voiland says.

If anybody can figure out how to make that business plan work -- and mend some broken hearts in the process -- these are the guys.

Email Editorial Page Editor Robert Price at rprice@bakersfield.com.

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