published Thursday, December 12th, 2013

$65 million stadium to be built on site of old ballpark in Nashville

NASHVILLE — More than 40 years ago, a historic downtown ballpark was demolished and construction of an interstate uprooted homes and businesses in the predominantly black neighborhood, leading to an economic slump.

This part of the city never recovered, but residents and leaders are optimistic a new minor league stadium will help revive the community the way ballparks have helped other cities.

"We made about a billion dollars' worth of investments ... and it's time to make an investment in the northern part of downtown," Nashville Mayor Karl Dean said. "It's going to broaden our downtown, and it's going to help north Nashville."

Regina Stevenson remembers piling into her father's black '56 Chevy with her five siblings and go to the old Sulphur Dell ballpark that was graced by baseball greats like Lou Gehrig, Satchel Paige and Babe Ruth.

The park was home to the Nashville Vols, the city's white team, as well as the Nashville Elite (pronounced E-light) Giants, who played in the Negro League. Fans would go from games to nearby businesses on thriving Jefferson Street, now a historic district.

"It was ... one of the pride and joys of the black community," said Stevenson, 60. "We'd buy hot dogs and popcorn and drinks, and we'd enjoy baseball. It was just a wonderful family time."

The Metro Council gave final approval this week to the $65 million stadium, which is part of a building boom of urban minor league ballparks across the country. Other cities that tout downtown ballparks include Auto Zone Park in Memphis, which is just blocks from Beale Street, West End Field in Greenville, S.C., which is a mini-version of Boston's Fenway Park and Louisville Slugger Field, which is close to the baseball bat museum and an entertainment district.

Raymond Winbush, director of the institute for urban research at Maryland's Morgan State University, said larger stadiums generally don't generate projected revenue, but baseball stadiums, particularly for minor league teams, are different because there are more games, the tickets are cheaper and "fans feel a little more affiliation with the home team."

"I think it will help," said Winbush. "But it's not going to be a windfall profit."

In contrast to the urban ballparks, the Atlanta Braves recently decided to build a new suburban stadium 10 miles from downtown. The Braves are fed up with their current stadium, which is in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods. The Braves hope they'll have more options for restaurants, retail shops and hotels, a pitch that sounds similar to Nashville leaders.

There are some new restaurants and reconstructed houses in northern Nashville, but the Jefferson Street area has struggled, with only a few new businesses.

"I think it will revitalize ... the whole Jefferson corridor," said Frank Ward, owner of the now Nashville Sounds. The Triple-A Pacific Coast League affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers who will play in the new ballpark currently play on the opposite side of the city.

Decades ago, when Willie Mays and Joe DiMaggio were thrilling fans at Sulphur Dell park, the area around the stadium was lively, similar to today's Beale Street in Memphis. Both sides of Jefferson street were lined with successful businesses and clubs.

Sharon Hurt, president and CEO of the Jefferson Street United Merchants Partnership, an advocate for economic and workforce development, said she's optimistic about the new stadium.

"It's been a long time coming for us to get some development on Jefferson Street," she said. "I think this ballpark will be a great anchor ... to start that redevelopment."

Gallery and frame shop owner Nathaniel Harris agreed.

"Something of that magnitude would bring more people, so there's more opportunities for the businesses down here," said Harris, whose shop has been on Jefferson Street for 26 years. It would be about a mile from the new stadium site.

Regardless of the economic impact, some say the stadium will bring back a piece of priceless baseball history.

Ken Fieth, Nashville's chief archivist and an expert on old-time baseball in the city, said the stadium is pretty much being built where the Sulphur Dell park was built in 1870. At the old park, both whites and blacks attended games to see the Giants and Vols play. But at the Vols' games, seating was segregated.

"That's the beauty of it," Fieth said. "Now all that's gone."

Stevenson said that's all the more reason to attend the new stadium.

"Not only am I going to go back, but I'm going to also take my 17-year-old grandson," she said.

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