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Wednesday, March 12,2014

If you build it...

Apartments inside Cooley Law School Stadium? Why not, city officials ask

by Andy Balaskovitz
For the past year, the Lansing Lugnuts and its host city have been working on a plan that makes $10 million worth of stadium maintenance and upgrades a whole lot sexier.

“The Outfield,” as it’s called, couples those renovations with a roughly $11 million private apartment development within the stadium on a narrow strip of land behind the outfield fence.

Lansing developer Pat Gillespie and Lugnuts owner Tom Dickson want to partner on the housing side. Before May 1, the developers and city officials will present a development agreement — in conjunction with a new bonding proposal and tax incentives — for City Council approval. The public and private portions would be paid for separately, but happen in tandem.

Officials say the aging stadium is in need of repair before public perception toward it goes from attraction to dump.

The thinking goes like this: If the city bonds for $10 million to pay for the infrastructure upgrades on the 18-year-old stadium — new field, new roof, picnic facilities, locker room renovations and laying new cement, to name a few — why not let the private side take it a step further? Economic development officials even predict a net cost saving for the city with the addition of more than 100 new residents, higher game attendance and increased annual lease payments from the team.

“More for less,” is how Bob Trezise, president and CEO of the Lansing Economic Area Partnership, characterizes it.

“The thing is, you don’t want a facility to reach a tipping point where it’s obsolete,” Trezise said on the necessity of upgrading. “You don’t want to wake up one day and suddenly it’s not such a nice place to go to.”

He says Cooley Law School Stadium could become one of the premier Minor League Baseball facilities in the country under the proposal. Most housing featured as part of ballpark designs is typically across the street; it’s rare for it to be built as part of the stadium, he said.

“We determined we needed about $10 million worth of work to get back up to speed and make it competitive with facilities around the country,” said Lugnuts owner Tom Dickson. “Instead of just leaving it at that, we entered into some discussions with LEAP and the city. If we’re going to put that kind of money into a stadium to renovate, why not make it better?”

For Trezise, the leader of the regional economic development agency, the stakes are high. He said the stadium drew 334,000 people last year and that it’s the biggest attraction into the city for Michigan State University students. (“Thirsty Thursday” night during the season helps.) It builds upon the neighborhood growing around the City Market, which is being led by Gillespie’s Stadium District apartments and the forthcoming Market Place.

“I think this is about placemaking,” Trezise said. “I see this on par with the (Ottawa) power station and the Knapp’s building, on that scale.” The Accident Fund Insurance Co. of America renovated the decaying Lansing Board of Water and Light facility on Grand Avenue. The Eyde family is restoring and repurposing the old Knapp’s Department Store in downtown Lansing. “The Outfield” may add another hundred or so residents to downtown.

But the project faces a tight timeline and an unpredictable reception by the City Council, particularly because it involves another Gillespie project in the area just east of downtown. Some Council members have fought Gillespie unsuccessfully because he won’t guarantee union wages.

Trezise isn’t worried about the Council.

“We presume they’re going to love this project,” he said.

Public/private

The overall plan is two parts: the public side, which would be paid for by issuing bonds, and the private side, funded by Gillespie and Dickson. With Council approval, public improvements would start this year. Both portions would be completed by opening day, 2016. Construction will be staged around baseball season.

The city, which owns the stadium, would end up covering about $9.5 million in renovations through the bond, while the team will put up $1 million for a new high-definition scoreboard. Right field includes a new, covered patio area and the concourse would be redesigned so you could walk a full 360 degrees around the park, which isn’t possible now.

The stadium originally cost about $18 million to build, Dickson said. The timing of the proposal is intentional. Within the next year, the city will have paid off its original bond payments to build the stadium, which Trezise said is about $800,000 a year.

“We wanted to come online as soon as the city’s debt went away,” Dickson said. “That’s the public portion.”

Additionally, the proposal would extend the Lugnuts’ lease agreement to keep them in the city for the next 20 years. The current lease expires in six years. The annual lease payments to the city are roughly $350,000. While that amount is subject to fluctuate because it’s based on a percentage of overall revenue (a series of rained out Thirsty Thursdays might make a difference, for example), Trezise said the new agreement could increase that by 25 percent. The team and the city share profits at the park on anything from tickets to hot dogs, which is included in the $350,000.

The last ballpark renovations were “fairly modest,” Dickson said, and took place in 2005. The $3 million spent included new seats, the addition of a bar and restaurant on the suite level and some HVAC work.

While the latest upgrades call for more structural changes to the roof, field, lights and clubhouse, Dickson also said they include “some amenities to the ballpark to keep up with what’s going on” at minorleague stadiums elsewhere.

Trezise said one of the main reasons for coupling the public project with a private one is the potential to generate new tax revenue for the city to offset some of the costs of paying down the bonds. Also, a more attractive ballpark, the thinking goes, increases revenue coming into the team and therefore the city. Trezise said the new bond payments for the stadium repairs would be about $1 million a year without the development presumably bringing in more revenue. He anticipates the new bond payments would be the same if not less than the original.

On the private side, Gillespie and Dickson want to build 80 to 100 market-rate apartments that rise four stories and span the outfield, nearly connecting Cedar and Larch streets. Rents will likely range from $875 for a one-bedroom to $1,200 for a two-bedroom. Half would face the ball field with patios, the other half would face north. Gillespie said those facing the north side will have access to an “entertainment suite” for watching games.

A year-round restaurant is planned for the left-field corner at the ground level, which would be accessible from outside the stadium and have a patio overlooking the field. Gillespie declined to give details about the restaurant.

The design of the apartments and restaurant, however, would crowd out green space that’s used as lawn seating and a play area for children.

Dickson said it’s possible some grass would be kept in the final design for seating, though “to be honest with you, they’re not terribly attractive areas in the ballpark. Generally they’re the last seats people buy. … The improvements we’ll make far outweigh taking away grass. The last thing I want to do as a team owner is take away from the fan experience.” Ticket prices would “absolutely not” be affected under the plan, he added.

Scott Keith, president and CEO of the Lansing Entertainment and Public Facilities Authority, said there are ongoing discussions about where to put familyoriented amenities on the concourse down the foul-pole lines. LEPFA would serve as the project manager.

“I think it’s time to find out what’s the next thing people expect at a facility like that for that interactive, family entertainment,” he said. “As we get dense and try to incorporate the next phase of amenities people want … we want to figure out what that is.”

The city would sell air rights to build on the property for $100,000, even though Trezise said a verbal appraisal pegged the value for the air rights at $500,000.

However, without support from the Lugnuts, “This is an unbuildable piece of property,” Trezise said, adding that he disagreed with the $500,000 price tag. “It’s ridiculous to think anything else will be built on it.” Also, Dickson’s agreement with the city gives him development rights in the stadium property.

Trezise also said the project depends on the developers’ receiving tax incentives, particularly being reimbursed for the costs of cleaning up contaminates from former industrial uses.

Several years ago, Gillespie proposed plans for Ball Park North, which would have included mixed-use retail and apartments where the city’s vacant Central Garage sits beyond the left- and center-field fences. However, those plans were abandoned after that property became reserved under the development agreement for the proposed casino adjacent to the Lansing Center, Trezise said.

On to the Council

If there’s any Council backlash about the city’s going with Gillespie on a private housing development in the Stadium District, Trezise said he wasn’t the only developer the city approached.

In fact, three others passed: One didn’t return his call, a second met with him and said “no way,” while a third met several times with Dickson and walked away.

“What am I to do?” Trezise asked. “Yes, I called Pat Gillespie.”

He also avoided opening it up to others with a Request for Proposals because the site is so small and that, overall, “the project is very, very marginal.”

Getting the ball rolling will require six votes on the eight-member Council to move forward with issuing bonds for the public portion. The Council will also be asked to approve selling air rights to the developers and a brownfield tax incentive.

Trezise plans to have these proposals up for a Council vote by May 1. Ultimately, for him, the project is not only about maintaining a public asset at risk of deterioration, but for making it better.

“I don’t want people to wake up” and find the stadium in disrepair, he said. “It can be a domino and fall this way or that way.”

The Lugnuts are the Single A affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays. The 11,500-capacity ballpark opened in 1996 during the Hollister administration. Original naming rights went to Oldsmobile but were rebranded in 2010 as Jackson Field at Thomas M. Cooley Law School Stadium. The ballpark is owned by the city, which shares a percentage of revenues with the team as part of a lease agreement. That agreement is scheduled to end in six years, though this new proposal is for 20 years, effectively extending the agreement by 14 years.

The team is owned by husband and wife Tom Dickson and Sherrie Myers under Take Me Out To The Ballgame LLC, the Lugnuts’ parent company. According to the official website of Minor League Baseball, Dickson has developed nine new minor-league stadiums across the country at a cost of more than $250 million. Dickson and Myers also own a sports consulting company and a concession catering company.


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