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Wednesday, Aug 20th

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Dow Diamond / Great Lakes Loons

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Having a chemical plant is your backyard isn't usually the mark of a great ballpark, but the location of the Dow Diamond, the new home of the Great Lakes Loons (Low Class A; Midwest League), and its proximity to a large chemical and manufacturing plant isn't as much of a minus as you might think.

FAST FACTS

Year Opened: 2007
Capacity: 5,300
Architect: HOK Sport
Construction: Three Rivers Corp.
Dimensions: 332L, 375LC, 400C, 373RC, 325R
Playing Surface: Grass
Website: loons.com
Phone: 989/837-2255
League: Midwest League (Low Class A)
Parent: Los Angeles Dodgers
Parking: A lot next to the ballpark holds 700 cars and costs $3. Several businesses in the area offer free parking for Loons games.
Address/Directions: 825 E. Main St., Midland, MI 48640. M20/US10-Business runs through northwest/southeast through downtown Midland and can be accessed from almost any direction. The ballpark is located on the southeast corner of downtown Midland.

The best ballpark is one that reflects its local community, and the Dow Diamond definitely represents the local community -- especially the one connected with Dow Chemical, the largest employer in the Midland, Mich. area. The team and the ballpark are owned by the Michigan Baseball Foundation, led by former Dow Chemical CEO Bill Stavropoulos and funded by several local foundations with ties to Dow Chemical in one form or another. The ballpark was built on the former headquarters of Dow Chemical, the 47 Building. The warning track contains crushed brick from that building. Naming rights to the ballpark was purchased by Dow Chemical. And the Dow plant is clearly in the background if you sit on the third-base side of the ballpark -- in short, it's not the most scenic of sites. You're never too far from Midland's roots when attending a game at the Dow Diamond. It is what it is.

Of course, if the ballpark weren't so great, the location would be more a bigger factor. In comparison to a relatively somber chemical-plant exterior, the Dow Diamond is lively and whimsical, filled with the small touches that endear us to a ballpark. It's bigger than the average Midwest League ballpark and breaks from the style you often find in the league, typified by Elfstrom Stadium or Fox Cities Stadium. There are fully functional gas fireplaces in the concourse and suite level and two firepits in the outfield concourse. A giant loon nest is located in front of the batters' eye; we'd hate to see the size of the loon who built it. When you decide to go with a name of Loons for your team, it's best to embrace the moniker.

Midland is in central Michigan, but far enough north where the evenings can be cool at the beginning and the end of the season. Two gas firepits in the outfield concourse (shown at the beginning of this piece) kick off some heat, though we suspect they're more for ambiance than relief from the chills -- they're surrounded by railings so you can't get too close. (Cherchez la attorney.) However, in the grandstand the two gas fireplaces do kick off some serious heat. The fireplace in the concourse is directly behind home plate and serves as a gathering spot of sorts for Loons fans, although the area is a little bare and could use something like Adirondack chairs or a couch. In a nice design touch, the fireplace extends to the second floor in the same staircase used by suiteholders. There, a second fireplace is more inviting, with couches and a small bar in the area.

The grandstand concourse is unique, and we predict it will be imitated in future ballparks. At first glance it's a standard concourse with concession stands and team store. But look closer: it can be closed off with walls that slide from the ceiling, with windows and doors at the end of aisles and additional doors at each end. (This feature isn't completed yet; the glass for the windows and the doors still needs to be installed.) The standalone concessions can sit within the pull-down windows and doors. This allows the concourse to turn into a climate-controlled facility, perfect for offseason events like trade shows or receptions. It does redefine how the concourse in a minor-league ballpark is designed, and we expect this is a feature we'll be seeing in more ballparks down the road.

Of course, having a great ballpark helps when you have a lot of resources. The ballpark and parking lots occupy a 20-acre site (which is almost double the amount of space the Minnesota Twins are using for their new downtown Minneapolis ballpark), and the end budget of $34 million is a pretty generous one by minor-league -- especially Low Class A -- standards. The money shows through in all the little things being right, and in many ways this was not an easy ballpark to build.

For instance, originally the plan was for a sunken playing field, with the concourse and entry at ground level -- it's always cheaper to burrow down and allow handicapped access right off the street. Early on it was apparent that was not a feasible design: a key telephone trunk line runs underneath the ballpark site, and no one was thrilled by the prospect (or cost) of moving it. So the ballpark (including the concourse) was basically raised a level -- which led to some other interesting design challenges.

The front entrance ended up being grander than anticipated after it was necessary to add a staircase and elevators to the mix; not a bad unintended side effect. Originally the gift shop was to be on street level and accessible from the concourse as well; with the concourse raised the decision was made to install a two-story gift shop accessible both from the street and the street. A two-story gift shop is pretty unique in minor-league baseball, and while the team originally planned on opening up the street-level shop only occasionally on game days, demand caused the Loons to open the entire store on game days. Again, a great touch, and one the fans seem to like; we predict it will be imitated in future ballparks.

Step outside the team store and you can access the whole ballpark via the now-obligatory wraparound concourse. Fans can camp out in berms down each line and in the outfield. During our matinee visit the temperatures were easily in the 90s, but there were plenty of fans soaking up the sun in the berms. We can imagine they're even more packed on one of those gorgeous Michigan July nights.

Alas, most fans don't enter the park from the grand entrance; they enter from parking lots located past right-center field. A small facility, complete with restrooms and concessions, is located in back of the scoreboard and serves as the secondary entrance to the ballpark.

The main group areas are located down the third-base line. A covered party deck accommodates groups.

We named Dow Diamond the best new ballpark of 2007, and with good reason: with an accessible and whimsical design, the Dow Diamond will keep fans returning for more.

CONCESSIONS
You'll find the standard ballpark fare at the Dow Diamond.

FOR THE KIDS
A large play area, located down the first-base line, attracts the younger set. Adults can still watch the game while keeping tabs on their kids.