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The “Major Announcement”: Ballpark Improvements Coming

Bisons

Friday’s hasty media release by the Buffalo Bisons wasn’t unexpected, expect for the timing of it all.

A “major ballpark announcement” read the press release, Mayor Byron Brown would be in attendance, the announcement would be staged in a little used mezzanine area behind home plate, and as people starting showing up, the stage was crafted between a season ticket holder meet and greet party and music wafting from the main level on what was a very crowded Fridaynightbash Buffalo Bisons’ game.

So what gives?

The announcement – the installation of 3700 new kelly green chairs at Coca Cola Field, in the area known as “special reserved seating”, which basically spans the infield in the lower section of the seating bowl from dugout to dugout.

Mind you, the fixed chairs at the ballpark, and there are over 16,000 of them, have been in place since the stadium opened in 1988. Many of them have faded from sunlight, armchair paint is peeling, and it is a needed and welcome announcement that this latest enhancement is finally happening.

Nonetheless, at first glance, the entire “major announcement” had the feel of not really all that big a deal.

So when Bisons President Jon Dandes and Mayor Brown stepped up to the podium, with a sample chair displayed right next to them, the questions came flying. And there were answers. Plenty of them.

The particulars are this – the new chairs will be put in place as soon as the team is done playing baseball, which may mean a couple weeks from now, as the Bisons are in the midst of a very exciting pennant chase for one of two available playoff spots, a race that may go the last day of the season. The city will be making the investment of $758.000 for the new chairs. The seats will be 22 inches wide, a full 3 inches more than the current red chairs. And the plan is to eventually replace all the seats at Coca Cola Field, which in and of itself will give the ballpark a completely different look and feel.

So that’s it? That’s all?

Not by a long shot. “We are working with our architect, Populous, which most of you know as the former HOK Sport, for a new plan to reinvent our stadium”, said Dandes, who admitted that the team has been working for months to come up with plans for an overhaul of the 27 year old ballpark.

Much of this is being driven by yet more construction of dynamic and exciting new ballparks in peer communities. In the International League alone, most teams have replaced their stadiums in the past two decades, making Coca Cola Field the second oldest park in the IL. Two new ballparks in particular have opened to rave reviews – Columbus’ Huntington Bank Ballpark is located in the city’s downtown Arena District, and is a veritable museum and showcase for minor league baseball, complete with sprawling exhibits throughout the venue, party decks, restaurants and premium seating amenities which Buffalo fans could not begin to comprehend. Over in Charlotte, their new BB&T Ballpark in Uptown sports views of the skyline which practically cascade into the outfield, and a great destination ballpark neighborhood replete with restaurants and shopping.

“Everything’s on the table including a retractable roof up on the party deck to the renovation of our suites to the dugouts to the concession stands and all the amenities here at the ballpark,” said Dandes. “We’ve asked HOK/Populous to take a look at what is state of the art. I’ve asked (Bisons General Manager) Mike Buczkowski and our team to visit a number of these ballparks to make sure we are at that level. We need to be state of the art and we are going to do that.”

Dandes set an aggressive timetable of “2 to 4 years” to get this done, while stating that this most likely will involve some aid in terms of public moneys. He was quick to emphasize that the Rich family, owners of the Bisons, have invested $23-million of their own moneys over the years towards the stadium. At the top of the list of things evident to the fans are the massive high definition video board, companion video boards and new sound system, all funded by the team. “At the end of the day, this is all about what the fans want when they come to experience the ballpark.”

Buczkowski promised that a plan, complete with renderings and a complete vision, will be coming. “We’ve been working on this all year. We’re heading to Charlotte to tour their ballpark at the championship game in September. The reality of this is the funding to do this all at once isn’t in place. So we thought the prudent approach was to do this all in phases. Let’s get it started, let’s build some momentum, and show everybody how great it could be.”

While the wider seats in the first phase won’t necessarily cost total capacity at the ballpark (18,025 including berm and party decks), Buczkowski says that a smaller ballpark may be the end result. “Just by doing the math, wider chairs means fewer overall seats. But we want to see what the other parks have done in terms of picnic areas and party areas. We want to create these common gathering areas where fans can come together and not necessarily be in a seat,” said Buczkowski.

Buczkowski was with the team when then Pilot Field opened in 1988. “We did things that others have since emulated over the past 25 years. This ballpark was groundbreaking at the time and now we ask ‘what is the next big thing?’. So for sure Populous is already thinking ahead in terms of what does the next great minor league ballpark look like. So we’re thinking that way in terms of a master plan and what we need to do to make this ballpark great for the next twenty seven years.

So as for Friday’s “major announcement”? Call it a “prelude major announcement” to the “major announcement” to come. The Bisons promised an unveiling of the total plan for the ballpark as soon as it’s ready. A remake of Buffalo’s Coca Cola Field is set to happen, another piece of the excitement and momentum that is building all over downtown and on the waterfront. “We’re excited about all the things happening down the street at Canalside, and we are in constant communication with the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation as to what we are all doing,” said Dandes. “But I should remind everyone that we came here in the 80’s and built here and invested here when there was nothing here but empty spaces. So we welcome them as our new neighbors and partners as downtown Buffalo continues to grow.

Andrew Kulyk and Peter Farrell cover the Buffalo Bisons for Artvoice. Follow them on Twitter @akulykUSRT and @pfarrellUSRT