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In Savannah, don't underestimate Freier when it comes to new ballpark

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Savannah Sand Gnats

He pulled off new-ballpark construction against some daunting odds in Fort Wayne, so don't underestimate efforts by Sand Gnats owner Jason Freier to build a new facility in Savannah.

Those of us with longer memories can recall the obstacles faced by Hardball Capital's Freier as he put together a funding plan for Parkview Field, the home of the Fort Wayne TinCaps (Low Class A; Midwest League): serious opposition from some in city government, skepticism from some in the business community and hostility from citizens who didn't see the need to improve the baseball situation. 

But it's safe to say the public-private partnership put together by Freier to build the ballpark has exceeded expectations: the ballpark is a regional draw and brought economic life to downtown Fort Wayne. The team does far more in the community than just staging baseball games, bringing in concerts (Bob Dylan is playing at Parkview Field in August) and sponsoring community events.

It's a template that could easily be matched in downtown Savannah, where Freier and city leaders have proposed a new facility to replace Historic Grayson Stadium, a landlocked facility that, to be honest, needs replacing. The proposal from Hardball Capital calls for a public-private partnership similar to the Fort Wayne plan: proceeds from a local tax originally earmarked for a new arena would be diverted to a new ballpark at the Savannah River Landing. Hardball would pay 20 percent or so toward the new ballpark as well as commit to more than a million dollars annually in maintenance and upkeep

In Savannah, Freier faces the same sorts of arguments he heard in Fort Wayne: People won't go downtown to a ballgame, public money shouldn't be spent on a ballpark, the existing ballpark is adequate, etc. Really, these are the same arguments that face every owner seeking a new ballpark, especially those looking to build downtown. 

But the biggest argument Freier must address: the uniqueness of the Savannah market. Once you've been witness to a discussion of ballpark economics, you realize there are very few unique markets anywhere in the United States. Sure, the accents may change, but the basic economics of a ballpark -- and economic development as a whole, for that matter -- really don't change from market to market. Saying the success of Fort Wayne can't be replicated in Savannah is just wrong, and overcoming that sentiment will be Freier's biggest challenge.

The Sand Gnats currently play at Historic Grayson Stadium, which opened in 1926 and was rebuilt in 1940-1941 in a project partially funded by the WPA.

RELATED STORIES: Savannah officials to visit Fort Wayne ballparkNew ballpark on deck in Savannah?

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