Pirates, Bradenton want to expand use of McKechnie Field

nwilliams@bradenton.comFebruary 9, 2013 

BRADENTON -- With a $10 million renovation of McKechnie Field nearly complete, officials with the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, the city of Bradenton and the Bradenton Area Convention Visitors Bureau are conjuring ideas to get the best return on the investment.

They include community events, concerts, high school and college tournaments -- even weddings.

Completion of the ballpark, the Pirates' spring training home since 1969, is slated for mid-February, in time for the club's intrasquad game Feb. 22. Upgrades at the facility, also home of the Bradenton Marauders, the Pirates' minor league affiliate, include adding 2,000 seats, a 19,000-square-foot wooden boardwalk with tiki bar, covered bleacher seats, a building in centerfield that includes a concession stand, and a luxury, two-level party deck in left field that accommodates up to 80 people.

Sports 1st, entertainment 2nd

Eighty-six days of the year, McKechnie is booked for baseball, whether Pirates spring training games or home games for the Marauders.

The possibilities for the remaining 279 days are endless, but the idea is to remain focused on attracting sporting events.

Trevor Gooby, the Pirates' director of Florida operations, said the Pirates would like to partner with college athletic conferences, the Florida High School Athletic Association and Manatee County schools to host regular season and possibly tournament games.

In April, McKechnie will

host an event for Bradenton's IMG Academy, as well as St. Stephen's Episcopal School. Gooby said other schools are inquiring.

"We look at McKechnie as a community asset and so we want to make sure local teams get a chance to utilize it as well," Gooby said. "It's not always about revenue. It's about an opportunity for other teams to use the facility."

Gooby said larger events could use also use Pirate City in east Bradenton, along with McKechnie.

Joe Pickett, Manatee sports commissioner, said there is potential to attract major tournaments held by the Big East, Atlantic Coast Conference and the Southeastern Conference. In the meantime, the target audience, Pickett said, are showcases and combines for potential college players.

"We can get coaches and scouts around the country," he said.

Using McKechnie Field for concerts and other nonathletic events is a possibility the Pirates and the local tourism industry are also interested in.

Business merchant markets, trade shows, art festivals, outdoor theater productions or even a wedding, which has happened before, could take place at the facility.

"How neat would it be to do Shakespeare at McKechnie Field with an outdoor setting?," said Elliot Falcione, executive director of the Bradenton Visitors Bureau. "That is realistic. It could definitely happen."

The stadium added lights for night games in 2008, which provided more opportunities to host events. Goody said the number of events to use the ballpark since 2008 has been limited, but with the renovation in place, "the focus is do to more."

Rental agreements for stadium use vary, depending on the type and size of the event, Gooby said. Per the lease agreement with the county, the city has a certain number of days it can use the ballpark.

"McKechnie Field and Pirate City is an amazing property to market," Pickett said.

Neighborhood development

Improvements won't just take place inside McKechnie Field. Bradenton officials are currently working on several projects to attract business to and revitalize the area surrounding the ballpark.

Tim Polk, executive director of the Bradenton Central Community Redevelopment Agency, said developing the area surrounding McKechnie Field, as well as other Bradenton neighborhoods, is a priority for the city.

"One of the things we're trying to do is put together a brownfields master plan," he said.

Administered by the Florida Department of Environment Protection, the brownfields program makes property owners in designated areas that have environmental issues as a result of past uses eligible for grants, tax credits and other benefits.

Most of the surrounding businesses around the ballpark are automotive services.

Polk said the CCRA has already identified areas that could become brownfields and a plan will be formed later this year.

Bradenton's 14th Street Community Redevelopment Agency's Village of the Arts Planning Project, which will revamp Bradenton's 14th Street West neighborhood, includes Village of the Arts, blocks of art galleries that also serve as permanent residences for many artists. The neighborhood is within walking distance of the ballpark and the project's focus is to attract new businesses and residents and improve physical elements.

Shannon Bassett, an assistant professor of architecture and urbanism at the University of South Florida, and her students are assisting the 14th Street CRA with the project. USF previously collaborated with the city on the design and construction of the new downtown Riverwalk.

One new business has moved into the Bradenton area with intentions of creating a partnership with the Marauders.

Local couple Denise and Frank Tschida have purchased property at 1014 Ninth St. W. near the Village of the Arts to build a two-story, 15,000-square-foot craft beer brewery.

The Bradenton Downtown Development Authority recently approved $13,000 in grant money to support the project.

The front tap room of the brewery is expected to be open by April 5, the Marauders' season home opener at McKechnie Field.

A piece of the puzzle

The renovation of McKechnie Field is part of an overall face lift to parts of Bradenton.

Within the past six months, residents of Bradenton have witnessed the opening of Riverwalk in downtown Bradenton, the unveiling of a $6.5-million renovation of the 60,000-square-foot convention center, and by March, will see the opening of the new Manatee Performing Arts Center in downtown Bradenton.

The renovation of the ballpark has already affected the local job market and construction business.

More than 80 percent of the businesses and total workers involved in the renovation are from the Tampa Bay area, according to the Pirates. NDC Construction, located in Bradenton, is the construction manager for the project and Fawley Bryant Architects Inc., which has offices in Bradenton and Lakewood Ranch, designed the project. Of the 39 businesses that have played a role in the renovation, 12 are from Manatee County and 11 are from Sarasota.

The total number of workers on the project as of January is 224, with 63 percent coming from businesses in Manatee and Sarasota counties.

Falcione said promoting the ballpark as a destination increases the number of tourists to the area. With an economic impact of $564 million on Manatee in fiscal 2011-2012, tourism continues to be the county's top industry.

"Bed tax helped build the stadium so the more people that can use the stadium that are coming in from out of town is only more beneficial to us," Gooby said.

In February 2012, Bradenton City Council approved a $7.5 million bank loan for the improvements at the ballpark, which the city owns.

Manatee County agreed to provide up to $400,000 per year for 20 years to help the city pay off the project's debt.

That money will come from the "bed tax" paid by tourists who stay at local hotels and resorts. The Pirates have also agreed to spend $400,000 annually to promote the Bradenton area in Pittsburgh.

The franchise previously spent $150,000 on promoting the "Friendly City" as a tourist destination.

"Our goal is to keep McKechnie open 12 months a year," Gooby said.

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