BY JOHN COX Californian staff writer email@example.com
Cheers rose from all the right corners Friday as city leaders and professional sports executives reacted to newly disclosed plans for a baseball stadium at Coffee and Brimhall roads.
Impressed by who is behind the project as much as details of the development, observers largely endorsed the proposal's central ideas -- a family focus and strictly private financing -- as put forward Thursday by new owners of the Bakersfield Blaze minor league baseball team.
Cal League 2011 average attendance
Lake Elsinore Storm3,272
San Jose Giants3,225
Inland Empire 66ers2,649
Rancho Cucamonga Quakes2,227
High Desert Mavericks1,725
Source: California League
Cal League fan demographics
Male: 56 percent
College graduates: 56 percent
Own their own home: 69 percent
Have children under age 18 living in their household: 52 percent
Have a major credit card: 93 percent
Earn between $46,000 and $75,000: 40 percent
Source: California League
Cal League cost comparison for family of four
Cost of tickets plus food, drink and parking
Cal League: $45.84
Major League Baseball: $111.12
National Football League: $265.62
Source: California League
Bakersfield Blaze full season attendance
Fans' home city
Bakersfield: 89 percent
Lamont: 4 percent
Arvin: 3 percent
Wasco: 2 percent
Source: Bakersfield Blaze
"I don't know why this would be met with anything but applause," said Bakersfield City Manager Alan Tandy, long a proponent of a new stadium to replace the county's aging and awkwardly designed Sam Lynn Ball Park.
Friday's warm reception was not blind to the project's challenge of raising average attendance from about 500 spectators per game to 2,500 just to cover the expense of building and operating a $20 million, 3,500-seat venue.
"It can be done but it is a lot of hard work," said Matthew Riley, president of the Bakersfield Condors professional hockey team. "There's really no such thing as 'build it and they will come.'"
What inspired hope in several who spoke in favor of the project was the business reputation of Blaze owners Gene Voiland and Chad Hathaway, each an accomplished oilman with local connections that may help the effort to raise money for the stadium.
Said David Higdon, managing partner of the Bakersfield Jam professional basketball team: "I'm sure (Voiland, former head of Aera Energy LLC) has got more paper and numbers on this project in his office than anyone would care to look at besides he and Chad. I'm sure he's gone over this with a fine-tooth comb."
Tandy added, "I think they're the right people to pull it off."
Even the wild card that might pose an obstacle to the construction -- potential opposition from nearby residents based on noise, light and traffic impacts -- seemed to fade in the eyes of the city's elected and appointed officials.
The stadium would be part of the 255-acre Bakersfield Commons mixed-use project approved years ago by the city. Although a public hearing is set for December before Bakersfield's Board of Zoning Adjustments, city staff said the ballpark proposal will likely pass muster simply because the larger development's original plans called for more intensive use than a stadium would present.
What's more, the development team behind Bakersfield Commons has agreed to a set of traffic mitigation plans expected to blunt any impact to the surrounding area.
"I don't think it's going to be a lot of chaos," said Fifth Ward City Councilman Harold Hanson, who represents some of the project's surrounding neighborhoods.
Tandy said the Westside Parkway offramp, expected to open at Coffee Road next spring, should clear up longstanding congestion in the area.
"If the Westside Parkway wasn't under construction and about to open, that would have probably represented a significant impediment" to the stadium proposal, he said. "But it is well along in construction and will be opening in early 2013, and we do expect it will alleviate the problems that have existed."
Fourth Ward City Councilman David Couch, who is set to switch jobs to become a county supervisor next month, declined to speak for his constituents with regard to impacts on surrounding impacts. But he welcomed some aspects of the project.
He recalled being skeptical of a baseball stadium proposed downtown about 10 years ago. It would have required a public subsidy, something the Blaze's owners have said they don't want or need.
"This particular project being privately funded is a much better situation, I believe, than what we were looking at before," Couch said.
People in the business of professional sports said the stadium proposal makes good sense in that it would target families instead of appealing more narrowly to just baseball fans.
Riley, with the Condors, said that same strategy has helped raise attendance at his team's games to about 5,000 per game.
"The family entertainment model is what we're all about. It's certainly the way to go," he said.
"Not everybody's a hockey fan. Not everybody's a baseball fan. Not everybody's a sports fan. But everybody wants to have a good time."
Not even the task of raising attendance four-fold to 2,500 people per game seemed like a particularly tall order to Charlie Blaney, president of the 10-team organization the Blaze belongs to, the California League.
He noted that the league's average attendance last year was about 2,300 people per game. The Lake Elsinore Storm led the league with an average of attendance of 3,272. The Blaze had by far the lowest draw at 572 per game.
"Now, with this new idea ... being in Bakersfield Commons, it's going to be a unique situation there where mom and dad can bring Uncle Joe and Aunt Sally who are visiting from Michigan or Florida or whatever and say, 'Come see what we have here,'" Blaney said.
If the stadium is built, of course, the Blaze will move out of its home at Sam Lynn, thereby denying Kern County a tenant. But county Parks Director Bob Lerude said back-up plans have long been in place.
He said a semi-pro baseball league, the Golden Baseball League, has expressed interest in using the field. Local high schools could use the field for tournaments as well, he said, and a local youth league might want to move in, too.
"We have a few options there but we're a long ways from making any decision at this point," Lerude said.
He added that baseball is "huge" in Bakersfield.
"Everybody believes we've got a great baseball town here," he said. "Now the question: Will they come out and support the (proposed) stadium with the team once it's built."
Tandy said he thinks people will show their support, himself included.
"I'm planning to be in line early to buy tickets for this," he said, "because I think it's going to be a very positive thing."