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Batter Up … Barons Eager to Play in New Home

Wed February 06, 2013 - Southeast Edition
Cindy Riley

Construction teams in downtown Birmingham, Ala., are working at a near-record pace to complete a $64 million baseball stadium that will be home to the Birmingham Barons. The minor league team, affiliated with the Chicago White Sox, will play its opening game at the new Regions Field in mid-April 2013.

City leaders and Barons executives broke ground on the development in February 2012. The park is located at First Avenue South and 14th Street South, directly across from the nationally recognized Railroad Park. Regions Field, as it will be known, will seat 8,500 fans, 3,300 fewer than Regions Park in Hoover, where the team played for more than two decades.

Currently filled with construction cranes, cement trucks and steel beams, the property is undergoing a dramatic transformation. The actual stadium — or seating bowl — being excavated is among the numerous tasks laid out for construction crews, who are working long hours to meet the spring 2013 deadline.

According to Jimmy Shaw, senior program manager of general contractor Robins & Morton, “The playing surface sits about 18 to 20 feet below the street level. So, as you walk into the stadium from First Avenue South and 14th Street, you’ll enter the stadium and actually walk down stairs/steps to the playing surface. The clubhouses for the home and visiting teams are slightly higher than this elevation, yet not by very much.

“The challenge for this type of design is making sure that all of the subsurface drainage systems, piping, pumps, etc. are designed in such a way as to eliminate all possibility of flooding the field in a rain or storm event. The act of simply watering the field is critical, as the water has to be removed and drained to avoid the potential of flooding,” Shaw said. “Excavation has been via conventional means, with some drilling and blasting being required for rock removal. We’ve encountered more rock than anticipated, which has caused some additional time and cost associated with its removal, but for now all seems to be going well. Deep foundations for the most part have been drilled piers with some spread footings and grade beams making up the difference.”

As far as the property preparation, the city of Birmingham acquired the land for the stadium, with the exception of B&A Warehouse, which sits at the corner of First Avenue South and 16th Street.

“There were environmental studies performed to verify the presence or lack of contaminated soils, fuel tanks, asbestos-containing materials, etc. These items were removed under strict monitoring and guidelines established by consultants and approved and accepted by ADEM,” Shaw said. “Once the property was acquired and the tenants moved or relocated, the buildings were demolished and hauled away. It was that simple.”

Traditional materials are being utilized for the stadium construction, including concrete and steel. The design is based on the industrial look from the early days of the steel industry in Birmingham.

“We have some locations where some of the old brick from the demolished buildings is being used,” said Shaw. “Other than that, it’s basic bricks and mortar, glass, burnished CMU block and metal panels. For the most part, weather has not been much of an impact to the construction of the stadium. However, we are headed into the winter months, so it will be critical for the successful completion of the stadium that we have great weather for the next several months.”

Yet to be finished are the high roof steel structure on 14th Street ( the first base side of the stadium), completion of the bowl excavation, the stadium bowl concrete and outfield walls that are currently being put in place, installation of all underground or subsurface drainage systems including storm and sewer, along with installation of the light standards or supports on the first base side. Also still incomplete are the scoreboard and the seats.

“There are numerous sound, TV, Wi-Fi, and other systems that will be critical to the successful fan experience, and operation of the stadium by the Barons,” Shaw explained. “The playing surface will be the last major component to install and will take about two months, from start to finish.”

According to developer Robert Simon, president of Corporate Realty Associates, the stadium will play a major role in the revitalization of the still struggling downtown community.

“We’ve done multiple urban development projects around Birmingham and we started focusing on Railroad Park, thinking there needed to be a passive park and an active one. That’s where this new stadium comes into play. The two go hand in glove. We looked at case studies across the country to see what we might be able to accomplish here,” Simon said. “Downtown Birmingham sits in the center of Jefferson County, so this project gives us the opportunity to bring baseball back to the area and hopefully let residents see all the different opportunities for entertainment and such. We hope the park will attract between 500,000 to 600,000 people a year.

“Minor league baseball has been a great catalyst for downtown redevelopment and we needed a project like this to bridge the north and south areas. As a developer enjoying both design and construction, it’s exciting to go to the second-story clubhouse and see the site work, from the steel beams going up to the concrete being poured. Robins & Morton is doing an incredible job managing a difficult project and timeline. This being an urban project, they’re having to deal with traffic on a daily basis along four city blocks. They’re digging a hole that’s twenty feet deep and who knows how big. It’s probably one of the largest ever dug in the city.”

Simon added, “The site has historically been a small warehouse market with UAB to the south and the central business district to the north. There’s a lot of potential here in terms of growth. This baseball park will provide a different element of activity year-round, not just during baseball season. The venue is set up to host everything from birthday and wedding parties to concerts and track meets. It will be a vital part of the growth of the area. This facility is in a safe environment and we think parking will not be an issue. Once plans are formalized, there will be different points of entry and exit, unlike the Hoover park that was located on a one-way street. There will be a flexibility of flow and different opportunities for parking.”

The city has been working with a parking engineer, although exact details have not been released. The new ballpark will feature suites, club seating, picnic areas, a banquet hall, a left field home run porch and a 360-degree concourse. The ballpark pays tribute to the city’s industrial past and will complement the surrounding area through the use of brick and steel. Roughly four blocks, from First Avenue South to Third Avenue South and 14th Street to 16th Street, had to be leveled to make way for the baseball park and the Negro League Museum that’s in the works.

The Barons will be returning to the downtown area for the first time in a quarter century. In 1987, operations moved from the city to the suburb of Hoover. Since 1996, the team has played only one game a year downtown at historic Rickwood Field, as part of the annual Rickwood Classic.

David Fleming, CEO of the economic development agency REV Birmingham, saidt, “The ballpark will be one more big driver of entertainment and recreation in downtown. It will add to the more than 1.6 million people per year already finding entertainment in downtown. More people bring more vibrancy.”

According to Fleming, “The interest in the project has been huge. I know many are looking forward to the Barons playing downtown. I hear more business people talking about buying season tickets to use for clients and employees than before. People are planning to spend their nights and weekends in the City Center, and that’s great. I know the Barons organization is going to provide some parking for those who would like it. Otherwise, people will find one of the many parking spaces available within a five- to ten- minute walk to the park. This ballpark will add to the quality of life in Birmingham, and provide us with a downtown recreation destination we’ve been missing.”

Barons executives also are reportedly hoping to improve attendance for the games with the move, and, so far, interest is high. At the two-hour groundbreaking earlier this year, more than 1,000 spectators turned out, including fans, city officials, former Birmingham Black Barons players, representatives of the ballpark development team, Regions Financial officials, city leaders and Barons Owner Don Logan.

Birmingham Mayor William Bell said, “Regions Field will serve as the home of the Barons, unite people in the Metro-Birmingham area and inspire countless youth in the city to pursue their dreams. The baseball stadium will be an economic driver for downtown. We’re not just building a baseball stadium, but investing in our inner-city infrastructure.”

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