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August 2012
Uptown Ballpark
By Mike A. Crespo

     Hot dogs, popcorn, beer and baseball—America’s favorite pastime comes to uptown Charlotte. But it doesn’t come as a coincidence. It’s taken six years of blood, sweat and community support to get it here.

     Just a month ago, Charlotte’s City Council approved the financial plan for building the new ballpark for the Knights at the Third Ward site, between Graham, Mint and Fourth Streets and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, along with a $7.25 million grant to support the ballpark construction.

     Come April 2014, both white collar and blue collar can sit elbow to elbow watching the Charlotte Knights play ball during their lunch breaks. This could be the stepping stone to building a baseball culture that hopefully someday could support a major league baseball team in Charlotte.

     “For now, AAA baseball is a still a good move uptown and an even better business decision,” says Charlotte Knights General Manager Dan Rajkowski. With plenty of room surrounding the future stadium, City Center Partners says the Third Ward would be a “super catalyst for development.”

     Rajkowski is not shy to share his vision about where he sees the team going in the future and why he thinks the Knights will become the most successful minor league baseball club in the nation.

 

Baseball is Good Business

     “This isn’t just a ‘handout’ for a baseball team,” explains Dan. “Take away the warm and fuzzy feelings—the popcorn, hotdogs, mascots and players that make up baseball—this is really a business decision. It’s about a business in South Carolina relocating to North Carolina. And with any relocation comes the added benefits to the community. You get property taxes, jobs, sales tax, and food and beverage tax just like a corporate relocation.”

     The money being used is from the hotel and tourism tax, private loans and the personal money of the owners, Don Beaver and Bill Allen. The land is leased for $1 per year for 49 years from Mecklenburg County. Rajkowski points out that, given the confidence of lending institutions these days, if loans are approved (especially this large), they’re looked at very carefully to ensure the plans will work, to ensure that the plan is a smart one for everyone involved.

     “Taking comparables from other cities with successful uptown ball clubs such as Toledo, Sacramento and Columbus, it only makes sense to bring the Knights uptown. These teams now average about 600,000 fans a year,” reports Rajkowski. The Knights get around 300,000 fans a year now in Ft. Mill and they’re losing money. They expect to double attendance in the new stadium and finally put the Knights’ bottom line back in the black.

     But Rajkowski doesn’t just think they’ll do well. He’s confident that the Charlotte Knights will become one of if not the most successful AAA baseball clubs in the nation.

     Charlotte has everything and it’s so vibrant,” proclaims Rajkowski. “It has the light rail, the economy, uptown businesses, uptown living, and it’s a great place to raise a family. What better to do on a hot summer day than watch baseball with your kids and create memories that last a lifetime!”

     “Putting the stadium uptown creates a 20-mile radius that hits a larger populated area. It makes the park more accessible for those in North Charlotte and even Iredell and Cabarrus counties. That’s what people want, they want it to be easy for them to take the family out for a game,” says Rajkowski. This is how the Knights plan to increase revenue from $3.5-$4 million to $10-$12 million a year.

 

Next Up

     After hitting the tight deadline for submitting a stadium financial plan on June 30, the dream starts to become a reality. That may have been the last hurdle needed to get this project underway, but it sure wasn’t the first. The Knights have been campaigning since 2005, way before Rajkowski took over as GM. They’ve secured their financial investors and built strong relationships with the partners of Mecklenburg County and the City of Charlotte, as well as BB&T Corp. which has purchased 18 years of naming rights.

     “The next thing to do is break ground in October, and I’m spending a whole lot of my boss’s money to make sure that happens,” laughs Rajkowski. He says that now it’s about the small details.

     “It’s about making sure the team gets it built, built on budget, and built on time. We’re in full stride with architects and construction management folks. We have a great design of a building. We’re piecing together ticket packages and selling suites. We’re starting and building relationships with sponsors. Right now I’m spending a great deal of time working on the core of the building, making sure we’re looking at the details so we can get all the amenities we want in there and not go over budget.”

     Some Charlotteans might be concerned about going over budget and leaving taxpayers stuck with the bill.

     “If we do, then that’s the obligation of the ownership, not the taxpayers,” claims Rajkowski.

     “This isn’t a building that if you miss by a couple of million dollars you go back to a ‘pot’ to fund the rest. The pot is the ownership. We may run into hurdles along the way, but my staff and I are committed to making this happen. I like my job…and don’t want to lose my job…so I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure that’s just what we do,” adds the GM with a chuckle.

 

Team Expansion

     Of course where there’s growth, there are opportunities. The Knights support about 308 jobs in Ft. Mill, according to the team. The new stadium will obviously bring new construction jobs for electricians, carpenters, architects, landscapers, concrete workers, and so on. But what about afterwards? Well, from a study by UNC Charlotte economist John Connaughton, the new stadium is projected to support 490 full or part-time jobs.

     Rajkowski also speaks about the development opportunities. He mentions the next closest ball park down the street, Durham Bulls Athletic Park. “That was just a ballpark 10 years ago,” says Rajkowski. “Now the development surrounding it is booming due to the American Tobacco Complex with shopping and restaurants such as Mellow Mushroom, Tyler’s and many more.”

     The Charlotte Center City 2020 Vision Plan also recognizes the valuable potential of the Third Ward site. It calls for a “ballpark neighborhood,” with construction of Romare Bearden Park and streetscape improvements setting the stage for revitalization, and Knights stadium being key to catalyzing additional development.

     As thick as the entrepreneurial spirit is in Charlotte, it’s certain there will be plenty of ways to take advantage of 600,000 plus fans swarming the Third Ward area. Rajkowski believes that area will soon boast hotels, apartments and condos, bars, and restaurants—not to mention the increase in advertising dollars. There’s lots of potential for the future of Third Ward, with development being the biggest.

     The Knights couldn’t have picked a better time to move. They’re in 1st place in their league with 54 wins and only 42 losses. Of course, being a minor league team means they’re at the mercy of the big leagues. The White Sox have activated four key players so far this year and the way the Knights are playing there could be several more. Not even Rajkowski knows where they’ll be at come 2014.

     “It’s always nicer when a team’s winning,” says Rajkowski, “but I want to focus on the core of baseball,” he says. “I want the fans to come out and have the best experience possible.

     “I tell my staff that our goal is to have fans leave the ballpark not remembering whether we won or lost. I want them to enjoy the food, cold beer, the fireworks and talk about that foul ball they almost caught (or almost got hit by).

     “Since the franchise left Crockett Park in 1989, there hasn’t been a true baseball community. The dads and moms that were kids then are going to be able to bring their children out to the show to relive those memories. There’s going to be something exciting about it like a honeymoon—everyone wants to be a part of it.”

     Rajkowski says he can’t wait to have this conversation in October 2014 so he can say, “See, this is what we thought was going to happen!”

     Aside from their nightly ball games, the Knights are going to hire full-time positions to attract other events. Anything from Rotary meetings to wedding receptions, banquets, concerts, and college and high school games as well.

     “We’re not going to only rely on 72 ball games a year. The idea is to attract as many events as possible all year round,” asserts Rajkowski.

 

Batter Up

     If the future prospects for the team are as cavalier as Rajkowski’s induction to baseball management, all will go well.

     Rajkowski started as a general manager at the young age of 24 with the Blue Jays Class A team in Florence, S.C.

     “I had players older than me,” remembers Rajkowski. “I learned a lot without the luxury of a big staff. Traveling to many different cities has shown me that this game isn’t about a player making $20 million a year. It’s about a guy who’s trying to make it to the big leagues. It’s personal. Fans have the opportunity to get autographs and actually talk to the players.”

     From all of Rajkowski’s accomplishments throughout the years—including being inducted into the Knoxville Baseball Hall of Fame in 2000, being awarded the Larry MacPhail Promotional Award by Minor League Baseball for outstanding promotional efforts throughout the season, and many others—he still remembers the most memorable moment in his career.

     “It was the day I stood on home plate in Sevierville, Tenn., in 2000 and saw a packed house in a ballpark that I had worked to get for 10 years and helped to build. I want my second most memorable moment to be standing on home plate in BB&T Ballpark the day it opens.”

     Rajkowski’s no stranger to taking franchises to the next level. Midway through the second year at Sevierville’s new ballpark Beaver asked him to go to New Orleans to make some adjustments.

     From the helm of the Charlotte Knights, Rajkowski’s convinced the team’s hit a big home run in moving to Third Ward.

 

Mike A. Crespo is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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