Sports

Saturday, Jul 06 2013 08:00 PM

News analysis: Blaze stadium doesn't require Bakersfield Commons build-out

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    By Casey Christie

    Blaze owners Gene Voiland, center left, and Chad Hathaway, center right, walk through the undeveloped land where a new baseball stadium is planned to be built. Blaze general manager Elizabeth Martin, left, and Dan Besbris, director of broadcasting, right. This is on Coffee Road, north of Brimhall.

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    By The Bakersfield Californian

    The Blaze's owners have been proposing a privately funded baseball stadium to be part of the Bakersfield Commons commercial development near Coffee Road and Brimhall Road.

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BY JOHN COX Californian staff writer jcox@bakersfield.com

When owners of the Bakersfield Blaze baseball team announced plans Nov. 1 to build a new ballpark, sitting next to them were representatives of World Oil, owner of the stadium property and developer of a mixed-use project that would surround it.

"The Blaze stadium is the perfect catalyst to get this started," World Oil principal Robert Roth said in a statement issued that day, referring to his company's plans for the 260-acre retail, office and residential project known as Bakersfield Commons.

This same notion -- that the two projects near Coffee and Brimhall roads would work hand-in-hand -- came up again last month as the Blaze owners, citing various obstacles, pushed back the stadium's opening by one year to 2015. That would put it on roughly the same timetable as the first phase of the Commons.

"We need to make sure that we're more 'in sync' and in line with (World Oil's plans)," Blaze co-owner Chad Hathaway explained to reporters June 20.

But do they? Does the stadium's success depend on the Commons, a project that has fallen behind its original schedule and which still faces substantial uncertainty?

Not at all, say local commercial real estate professionals, as well as city officials and people connected to both projects.

BETTER TOGETHER

Clearly the two projects stand to benefit from one another. Blaze fans may want to eat at a restaurant before or after a game, just as the stadium might do better as part of a larger entertainment and retail project.

"It's nice to have all those amenities around" the stadium, Bakersfield commercial real estate broker Anthony Olivieri said. But, he added, "it's not necessary, I don't think."

"Either project, I think, could stand on its own merit."

Duane Keathley, also a broker in Bakersfield's commercial real estate market, agreed. He said either project would help the other, but that he thinks the stadium could stand alone if necessary.

"The reason I do is because the baseball stadium (would be) a destination," he said.

"The optimal situation would be if you could develop both the Commons and the baseball stadium in concert with one another."

Both scenarios -- neighboring projects that are mutually supportive or just one of them standing alone -- are acceptable to supporters of new development in the area. They favor the more inclusive alternative but say one is better than none, if it were to come to that.

Bakersfield City Manager Alan Tandy said the stadium would probably succeed even if the Commons were delayed by a season or more.

"I think it'll still work and it'll still be a draw," Tandy said, adding that the project would do better with a retail development surrounding it.

In some ways, the Blaze and World Oil have no choice but to work together. World Oil would be the team's landlord, after all, and city approvals for both projects call for traffic mitigation work such as new sidewalks and vehicle entrances and exits.

A signed agreement between the two parties spells out their respective responsibilities with regard to traffic improvement measures and infrastructure such as electrical power, water and sewer lines.

"Whether they (World Oil) build or not build, the infrastructure will be there," said Blaze co-owner Gene Voiland. "That's part of the agreement."

For all the trouble that Voiland and Hathaway have encountered with the stadium plan, theirs is looking like the more solid construction schedule.

While they have not yet announced a definite start of construction, the Blaze owners say they hope to break ground by year's end and open in 2015. A representative for World Oil said the Commons project's initial, retail phase will kick off in the 2014-15 time frame.

Originally, construction of the 3,500-seat stadium was to begin in February of this year. But Voiland and Hathaway alluded to setbacks ranging from a desire not to rush the building's design to the discovery of unexpectedly sandy soil that will require more concrete than anticipated.

"We were just too ambitious," Voiland said of the team's original timetable. He said the stadium's price tag has topped the original estimate of $20 million, though he would not say how much, adding that work on the project's financing is not yet complete.

In welcome good news, the team secured city approval of its grading permit in early June.

COMMONS QUESTIONS

The larger Commons project, on the other hand, remains uncertain in some respects.

The state's high-speed rail project jeopardizes roughly one-sixth of the project at its southwest corner, according to a tentative alignment released earlier this year by officials of the rail project.

That clearly worried World Oil when rail agency officials released the staff-preferred alignment last spring.

"The proposed alignment cuts right through the property and threatens this significant investment as it does homes, churches and businesses," World Oil attorney Benjamin Hanelin told the board of the California High-Speed Rail Authority at its April 4 meeting.

But the proposed route -- which would bypass the stadium -- has received no final approval, and Tandy noted that the rail agency has no money to build that far south anyway.

"The tracks aren't going to get past Wasco," he predicted.

Meanwhile, World Oil is revisiting the economics of the larger Commons project, which including office buildings and residential units was supposed to reach full build-out in about 2030.

World Oil spokesman Steve Sugerman said the company is conducting a "market analysis" on what mix would be best for the site in terms of retail, commercial and residential. He said the results would guide the development's phasing as well as mixes for the different phases -- but that the initial retail construction will not be affected.

The company's reevaluation of how to proceed with the project has been affected by the recent economic recession and hesitance on the part of national retail chains wary of signing leases, Sugerman said.

But more than that, he said, the company wants to make sure it builds the right project for the area.

"World Oil is taking a long-term view for planning the Commons," he said. "And unlike traditional developers who need to get something going quickly, we're intentionally not rushing into anything to make sure that we get it right."

For his part, Voiland maintains that the stadium could survive alone. But it would certainly do better surrounded by stores and restaurants.

"That can do nothing but help the ballpark," he said.

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