Savannah stadium study leaves key questions unanswered

Call me naive, but I was assuming the $55,000 study to determine the feasibility of a new multi-purpose stadium (multi-purpose, yes, but primarily for the Sand Gnats) would at least address the most important questions.

But the 90-page study from C.H. Johnson Consulting skirts several key issues.

First, let me say that I’m sort of ambivalent about the whole issue. Most of my friends and contacts oppose a new government financed and constructed stadium that would then presumably be leased to Sand Gnats’ owner Hardball Capital, which would manage the facility. Hardball Capital would then allegedly book other events throughout the year. I continue to have some questions about the likelihood of concerts and the like, since, as you can see on the events calendar for Parkview Field in Fort Wayne, Ind., Hardball Capital doesn’t seem to be booking a significant number of public events.

Many of my friends are also distraught about the prospect of Grayson Stadium no longer being home to a minor league baseball team, but we might be at a point when the gracious old building just can’t meet modern needs.

In other words, I’m open to the idea of a new stadium and open to the idea of one built using tax money. Vibrant communities invest in quality infrastructure.

But serious questions remain, and I imagine even some supporters of a new stadium will be disappointed by what is included in this study and what is not.

The study concludes that a new stadium could be a boon for the city if built at the Savannah River Landing site just east of the Marriott on the riverfront, but here are a few key areas that deserve attention:

1. What would be the initial cost of land acquisition?

The new stadium itself would cost $35 million (that’s the estimate in Eric Curl’s coverage in the SMN today), or maybe somewhat less (my own estimate). But how much would it cost to buy the land? The current owner of Savannah River Landing — still a Canadian pension fund, as far as I know — probably has tens of millions of dollars wrapped up in the site. The study suggested that the stadium would be built on a very large parcel — that parcel is also in the most prime location within the proposed development:


From the study: “The City’s ownership of the existing Grayson Stadium site is more economically appealing than the Savannah River Landing site, where the potential acquisition cost remains unknown at this time.”

How can we possibly assess the feasibility of the project from a public policy standpoint if we have no idea how much the land would cost? Did the SRL owners not respond to questions about that? Did anyone ask them? Mysteriously, on page 31 C.H. Johnson Consulting rates the SRL site as “fair” in terms of “Site ownership and control.” If we don’t own the site and have no idea how much it would cost and have no control of surrounding properties, shouldn’t that be listed as “poor”?

2. What would be the impact on the Tax Allocation District if so much land were publicly owned?

The city of Savannah is paying over $1 million per year to pay off bonds that were to have been paid by an increase in property tax revenue within a defined Tax Allocation District (TAD) that includes Savannah River Landing. Even if a new stadium spurs development, we’ve taken about a quarter of the land of SRL — the most valuable chunk — out of private hands. How will that decision impact future property tax revenue? How much more will values have to increase in privately held areas just to offset the public purchase?

3. Why did the study consider the current site of Grayson Stadium, which no one would advocate demolishing, as the site of a new stadium?

Maybe this flawed approach in the study was the result of a screw up by someone at the city and not the fault of the consultants — I don’t know. But the bulk of the study is comparing the feasibility of two sites — the SRL site that we don’t own (and have no idea what it would cost), and the site of Grayson Stadium, which we would never tear down anyway (would we?). If so much of the study were going to be built around comparison, maybe we should have compared the SRL site with another possible site.

By the way, the study does not see renovation of Grayson as a viable possibility. From page 9:

“A new stadium that will keep the Sand Gnats located in Savannah will be most beneficial for local residents because it will provide family entertainment options, seasonal employment and volunteer opportunities while also providing residents a facility for numerous special events outside of baseball. Grayson’s location and physical offerings do not have that opportunity, even if renovated to first-class standards.”

4. What about the extension of the Oglethorpe Plan?

As I’ve noted multiple times in my Savannah Morning News columns and here at Savannah Unplugged, Savannah River Landing has attracted attention from around the globe for its proposed extension of the Oglethorpe Plan. From the New York Times in 2007’s Savannah Adds to the Master Plan of 1733:

More than four years ago, the city’s economic development agency hired Christian Sottile, a Savannah-based urban planner, to update the Oglethorpe plan, which is now guiding the development of Ambling’s 54-acre site. Mr. Sottile will be continuing a pattern of development that last had a major addition in 1856.

“What’s so unique about Savannah River Landing, we were able to reach back 150 years and continue a history of urbanism native to this place,” said Mr. Sottile, who teaches urban planning and design at the Savannah College of Art and Design.

“With a conventional master plan, which often foresees all of the buildings from Day 1,” he said, “you freeze in time the mix of uses. This is the opposite. It’s town-building. The streets come first, public spaces come first, and the blocks become spaces for building, which are not prescribed. It’s highly unusual for American cities.”

The study makes no mention of this unprecedented opportunity to extend the city in a way consistent with its founding. Are we just going to give up on that plan?

5. Parking, editing, other issues

Maybe I’ve missed something, but the study only uses the word “parking” nine times. How many parking spaces would the new stadium need? Also, one would hope that consultants on a serious matter like this would have hired a really good editor to eliminate inconsistencies in the text, like the nearly constant switching between “multi-purpose” and “multipurpose.”

There are a variety of other issues that don’t feel adequately fleshed out to me, but maybe I’ll feel differently when I’ve had time to take a longer look at the document.

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