A ballpark not just for baseball: Facility will feature cafes, playground, shops

BY JEFF EVANS Californian staff writer jevans@bakersfield.com

Baseball will be the main attraction but there will be plenty of other options for spectators when the Blaze open their new $20 million, state-of-the-art stadium in 2014.

“Things have changed from when I was a kid going to games with my dad,” said Blaze owner Gene Voiland, who joined fellow owner Chad Hathaway in announcing details of the new stadium on Thursday.

New baseball stadiums built in recent years offer playgrounds, bounce houses and other activities that go beyond the on-the-field baseball product.

“It’s family-focused entertainment,” Voiland said.

Voiland said the new stadium will be built by private funds on 15 acres along the north side of 255-acre Bakersfield Commons, the planned mixed-use community located northwest of the intersection of Coffee and Brimhall roads.

The 3,500 seats will include eight luxury suites. The stadium will also offer grass berms, picnic areas, a children’s playground and special event space, plus 836 parking spaces.

It will replace Sam Lynn Ballpark, which opened in 1941 and has been under fire for years by professional baseball officials who say the field does not meet minimum requirements for Class A minor league teams.

Voiland and Hathaway have traveled extensively, visiting minor league stadiums, in planning for the type of stadium they want for the Blaze.

Hathaway said the setting of Fluor Field, a 5,700-seat stadium built in Greenville, S.C., that opened in 2006, is the model for the new Bakersfield facility.

“There are a lot of patio cafes along the way,” Hathaway said. “There are a lot of open areas, family areas. It was done by private investors as well.”

Hathaway said he talked extensively with Greenville co-owner and team president Craig Brown.

“One of the biggest pieces of advice Craig Brown gave me was it’s not about baseball,” Hathaway said. “The people who love baseball will be there. It’s the families, the businesses, the corporate entertainment. That’s what drives your attendance.”

Hathaway said the new Blaze stadium will incorporate many aspects of Fluor Field.

“Those open areas are what grabbed me,” Hathaway said. “They had a huge playground area. They had multiple options for food. The outdoor bar areas and group areas were very welcoming. The ballpark drove you to different places—adults would go over here, children would go over there.

“It was every type of demographic. It was very family friendly.”

Voiland said that approach differs from the California League’s newer parks built in the 1990s, such as those built in Rancho Cucamonga and Lake Elsinore. Those parks have generated strong attendance.

“I’d describe them as built for the fans of baseball who want to watch the game,” Voiland said.

“The concourse areas were almost an afterthought. The new parks have huge concourses. ... You could literally have 20 people in line and they mill. It’s not a feeling of crowdedness.

“You go to Rancho it’s like you’re in a sardine can. If you’re watching the game, fine. But if you’re in line for concessions, you’re having a bad experience.”

Voiland said the success of the new sta-

dium will be enhanced by events that go beyond Blaze baseball.

The team will schedule concerts. The stadium might be used for sporting events such as soccer and softball games and high school playoff games. Even Cal State Bakers-field home games are possible, Voiland said.

“This is going to be a community complex. That’s what it boils down to,” Voiland said. “There are a lot of things we can do with it. ... We will have something that seats 3,500 people outside, which we don’t have in this city.”

Voiland said he has spoken with CSUB athletic director Jeff Konya about the possibility of the Roadrunners playing in the new stadium. He said nothing has been finalized.

Konya said CSUB is interested but stopped short of saying the CSUB program would definitely play in the new stadium.

“It’s a little preliminary,” Konya said. “We have not seen the plans or seen the scope of that project.”

Konya said last spring that a fundraising project has begun to finance upgrades to CSUB’s Hardt Field as the Roadrunners prepare to join the Western Athletic Conference.

“We know we have to get a better facility for conference play, whether it’s an upgrade to Hardt Field or something else being considered,” Konya said.

Bakersfield has been threatened with the loss of its professional baseball team for two decades because of Sam Lynn Ballpark.

Voiland and Hathaway purchased the Blaze earlier this year. The sale was finalized in early April. From the time they took over, they said a new stadium was essential for the team’s success.

“We didn’t buy it to play in Sam Lynn forever,” Voiland said.

Upon taking over the team, Voiland and Hathaway poured money into Sam Lynn for needed repairs.

“We made it safer,” Voiland said. “Nails were sticking out of the outfield walls. The netting was shot and wasn’t to the right height. Broken seats. All kinds of stuff.”

In addition to sub-par clubhouses, lighting and dugouts, Sam Lynn is built so the setting sun affects batters until sunset. That forces game times as late as 8 p.m.

“When you start a game at 8 o’clock because of the sun, you lose your kids,” Voiland said. “You get them home at 11 and mom and dad have to get up at 6 to go to work the next day.

“That’s what struck me when we visited Lake Elsinore. I’d say one-third or one-half of the people there were kids. You could sometimes count the kids at our games on your two hands.”

Voiland said expectations of increased attendance at Blaze games were based on the fact that there are “450,000 people within 30 minutes.”

Voiland said a new study of the noise, traffic and lighting impacts on the area had been completed since the addition of the stadium to the planned Commons project. The Commons’ original environmental impact report and conditional use permit were completed several years ago.

Voiland said the Blaze will sell naming rights to the stadium but declined to estimate the amount of money that will generate. “I have an idea but won’t speculate,” he said. “Maybe it’s too low.”