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By Casey Christie / The Californian
BY ZACH EWING Californian staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org
Like a baserunner who takes a big turn at first base and then scurries back to the bag, the Bakersfield Blaze has decided its original plans for a new stadium were too aggressive.
Blaze owners Gene Voiland and Chad Hathaway announced Thursday that the new stadium won't open until 2015, a year later than planned.
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They offered a passionate defense of the decision Thursday night at Sam Lynn Ballpark during the Blaze's game vs. the High Desert Mavericks.
"This is a very complex project," Hathaway said. "We're not building a basic, stripped-down stadium. We wanted to build something that would make Bakersfield proud, and when you do something like that, you have a lot of things in the construction process that pop up that surprise you.
"...Yeah, we're frustrated. We wanted to get it done. We worked our butts off to get this done in time. It's frustrating, but at the same time, we're confident that we're doing all the right things.
" We're committed to making this happen, and ... we're on our way to doing that. We just need more time."
No construction has started on the stadium, and Voiland said it would take "about a year" to complete the project once that happened.
Voiland said there were plans to break ground on construction before the end of the year, but he declined to give a specific date.
"From a standpoint of construction, I think we're (almost) there," Hathaway said. "...We could go out and break ground tomorrow, construction-wise, but (in other aspects of the operation), we couldn't be ready."
Hathaway mentioned a litany of small obstacles that contributed to the delay, from syncing construction with a neighboring real estate project to getting additional building permits to making sure that California's high-speed rail project, planned to run directly adjacent to the stadium site, wouldn't interfere.
"This is not a one-issue deal; there isn't one thing I can point my finger to and say, 'This is the reason that it's delayed,'" Hathaway said. "The whole thing is based on being operationally ready to give this town a first-class experience when we open."
When Voiland and Hathaway, both oilmen, announced plans for the privately financed ballpark in November, it was expected to open in spring 2014 as the centerpiece of the Bakersfield Commons mixed-use development project at Coffee and Brimhall Roads.
"If you had asked us then, we would have said, 'Yeah, it's very ambitious,'" Voiland said. "And it's proved to be more complex than we thought. We really kept trying to stay to our schedule, but the point finally came two weeks ago that we said, 'Nah, we can't get it all together. Let's wait and do it right.'"
Voiland and Hathaway then contacted their stakeholders and informed them of the delay before making it public.
"They all said, 'Great. Let's do it right,'" Voiland said.
Meanwhile, the Blaze, the Class-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds, will spend another season in aging Sam Lynn Ballpark, where the sun sets over the center-field wall and shines on the grandstands and home plate area, causing late start times and average attendance that lingers around 500.
"It's a shame," said Shane Hobbs, who attended Thursday's game. "I live in northwest Bakersfield, and I'd like to see it get done. It starts to make you wonder.
" ... I know I would go to a lot more games if they had the new place."
Asked if finances played a role in the delay for what is a completely private project, Voiland was non-commital but reiterated that he and Hathaway were still confident in their plans.
"We believe we will build a stadium," Voiland said. "The intent was to build it privately, and we believe we will."
The bonus, Voiland said, is that the project gets an entire extra year, because there would be no point is completing it in, say, December 2014, when the baseball season doesn't start for five more months.
"What we now have is another year. We have 24 months to complete a 12-month project," Voiland said.
"And now we're going to be very comfortable that the stadium is built in plenty of time (for Opening Day 2015)."