Ed McLaughlin, Virginia Commonwealth University’s vice president and director of athletics, said that with an optimist’s eye he could see a new baseball stadium located within the planned VCU Athletics Village along the Hermitage Road corridor for the 2023 season.
“But that’s one man’s desire, not everyone’s,” he cautioned Wednesday.
McLaughlin projects that a new ballpark, which VCU would share with the Richmond Flying Squirrels, would have a capacity similar to The Diamond, which can accommodate 9,560, and added that naming rights remain available. The Double-A Flying Squirrels and VCU currently play at The Diamond.
According to McLaughlin, the new stadium’s possible opening year of 2023 is connected to when property on Hermitage Road becomes available for construction and sufficient money is raised for the project.
Twenty-two state-owned acres designated for the VCU Athletics Village, across Hermitage Road from The Diamond, are currently occupied by the Virginia Alcohol Beverage Control Authority warehouse and offices.
The new ballpark may end up on the other side of Hermitage Road, near the current location of Sports Backers Stadium. Much of the VCU Athletics Village has been designed for the opposite side of Hermitage Road, on the ABC footprint.
That ABC complex, which has been in operation since 1971, is shifting to 40 acres in Hanover County. The move is expected to be completed by July or August of 2021.
“We are still targeting that to have the new facility operational and handling shipments,” Travis Hill, the ABC’s CEO, said Wednesday. “I think what remains to be seen is at what level. But as we stand right now, we are still targeting the official use of the facility by that time.”
The quicker the Hanover ABC site is ready for business, the quicker the Hermitage Road complex can be removed to make room for part of the VCU Athletics Village. Hill said the Hermitage Road ABC site probably would not be vacant until “the start of 2022. I think that would be the earliest we would ever kind of relinquish possession and operation.”
“Really from the beginning, it’s been about making sure the new facility is meeting our needs and we can operate fully out of it,” he said. “And so, there’s a lot of caveats and ifs that come along with what happens at the 2901 Hermitage site, and it really depends on how we get the new site up and running, and our comfort level there.
“In reality, we want to be operating out of that new site ahead of the holiday. But we certainly wouldn’t do anything with the current site as we try to make sure that we’re set for the holiday of 2021.”
VCU also has purchased other parcels along the Hermitage Road corridor, where the school’s athletics village is expected to include, in addition to the ballpark, a tennis complex, a track, a soccer stadium, practice fields, academic buildings, a field house and parking.
In a conceptual image produced in June by Richmond 300, a city government organization that provides guidance for growth leading into Richmond’s 300th birthday in 2037, the ballpark would be constructed on The Diamond’s side of Hermitage Road. That plan requires approval by the Richmond Planning Commission and City Council. Specific locations for the various VCU facilities haven’t been finalized, but VCU is working closely with Richmond 300, according to McLaughlin.
“We feel like it’s going well, and we hope to have some really good news very, very soon,” McLaughlin said.
The Flying Squirrels have consistently expressed their interest in a new ballpark since they moved to Richmond before the 2010 season. There have been several plans for a new stadium since their arrival, but none matured, often because of financing or site issues that accompanied a city initiative.
This is the first ballpark project led by VCU. The school has not disclosed a financing plan, or indicated to what degree area jurisdictions and the Flying Squirrels would be involved.
“I’m riding with my friends at VCU on this, and I’m confident progress is being made,” Lou DiBella, the president and managing general partner of the Flying Squirrels, said Wednesday.
The Diamond, which opened in 1985, does not have space for comfortable dressing areas, coaches’ rooms, a lounge, a kitchen, a modern workout area and a video/computer room, plus accommodations for female staffers that Major League Baseball wants for minor league affiliates.
MLB is in the process of negotiating a new contract with Minor League Baseball that defines the working relationship. MLB is expected to take greater control over the minors, particularly when it comes to stadium conditions.
“Major League Baseball is no longer willing to accept substandard facilities,” said Joe McEacharn, the Double-A Eastern League president since 2003. “There may be grace periods: ‘You’re going to keep your Double-A team [for now], but we’re going to revisit that in three years, five years,’ whatever it may be. And if something isn’t done, you’re going to be in jeopardy.”