In conversations about a potential new ballpark, Todd Parnell, the Richmond Flying Squirrels’ vice president and chief operating officer, often tells listeners that “if you haven’t had something before, you don’t know what you’re missing.”
Parnell and members of the Flying Squirrels’ ownership and front office believe a ballpark to replace the 28-year-old Diamond would enable the team to enhance the fans’ experience.
The city hasn’t committed to a site for a new ballpark or a financing plan. Debate continues about whether the new ballpark should be on the Boulevard or in Shockoe Bottom.
A City Council committee voted 6-3 on Monday to recommend killing a proposed public referendum on the issue. City Council is expected to address the referendum question at its next meeting, set for July 8.
If a ballpark is built, the team said it can do things that aren’t possible or are limited at The Diamond. The stadium, which opened in 1985, has a large upper deck, concession areas that require fans to leave the viewing area, and limited video capability on the scoreboard.
Bruce Baldwin was the Richmond Braves’ general manager from 1987 to 2008. Since moving from Richmond, he helped design and open stadiums in Gwinnett County, Ga., now the Triple-A home of the Atlanta Braves, and Pensacola, Fla., the Double-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds.
“The best way to do a facility is to spread it out, and give people walking space. That is the biggest thing that The Diamond doesn’t have,” said Baldwin, now president of the Pensacola Blue Wahoos.
There are no definitive plans for what a new ballpark would include, but the Squirrels envision that it offer the following amenities:
• Design: A ground-level entry plaza and an open concourse that wraps around the field, with a berm in the outfield; fans would be able to walk around the stadium;
• Seating: Depending on the footprint, about 7,000 fixed seats, with a capacity of 8,500-9,500; club-level seats, with an air-conditioned area, food and a bar; 18 to 20 suites; increased handicapped seating and accessibility throughout the stadium and a picnic area where spectators could sit throughout the game;
• Concessions: More, with more specialty items on an expanded menu;
• Player development: Modern and expanded clubhouses with a weight room and batting cage.
• A sophisticated video board with enhanced capabilities;
More restrooms, including more family restrooms;
• A play area for children;
Kevin Reichard publishes and edits Ballparkdigest.com, an industry source since 2003, and has visited The Diamond for a Squirrels game.
“The ballpark is from a different era. It was built quickly (during one offseason) and cheaply ($8 million). And there’s no flexibility in moving around stuff when you’ve got concrete used everywhere to hold everything up,” Reichard said.
Parnell said ground-level access to the stadium would set the stage for a better experience.
“All of our plans are for people to walk in at ground level and go down,” he said. “One of the functional issues of The Diamond is you walk in and are greeted by our staff, and then you proceed to walk up 32 steps.
“You also don’t have a view. When you walk into a new ballpark, you immediately have a view of a pristine field and a beautiful setting. That’s the first point of setting off your entertainment experience.”
The Diamond has four main concession stands, as well as auxiliary carts. Concession areas would be increased around a new ballpark and allow fans to watch the game while standing in line. The team says more areas would help shorten wait times on nights with big crowds.
The Squirrels had back-to-back sellouts May 31 and June 1. Parnell said he timed people in line for 12 to 15 minutes.
Parnell calls the video board “the epicenter of the event.” The current video board can’t show replays, highlights, pitch counts or possibly a “game-day” show from the concourse. The current focal point, he said, is on-field promotions.
“It makes a huge difference to the fan experience,” said Chuck Domino, the Squirrels’ chief executive manager.
Parnell also believes the team could bring in high school and college games, concerts and festivals.
The Squirrels have been in the top three in Double-A, and the top 20 in the minor leagues, in average attendance in each of their three seasons. They averaged 6,626 in 2010, 6,679 in 2011 and 6,257 last year.
Richmond leads the league with an average home attendance of 6,299 this season, despite some weather issues.
At least initially, a new park likely would increase attendance. Parnell said he couldn’t estimate by how much but believes the team could sustain it and would top the Eastern League “for a long time.”
The Diamond was “antiquated” a decade ago, according to Baldwin, the former R-Braves’ GM. The Braves’ top farm team played in Richmond from 1966 to 2008. Dissatisfaction with The Diamond influenced the Atlanta Braves to move the franchise, which in this case is owned by the major-league organization.
Randy Mobley, president of the Triple-A International League, said in 2009: “If there were a facility (in Richmond) that the Atlanta Braves and the International League found acceptable, we would never have left.”
Because of The Diamond’s design, “It’s such a difficult facility to bring up to modern-day standards,” Baldwin said.
John O’Connor contributed to this story