Baseball stadium could spur new opportunities

February 27, 2019

Perhaps we are two years away from something that has been more than 50 years in the making.

Marshall University and the city of Huntington announced last week they had bought land along 5th Avenue to build a new baseball stadium. If all goes well and as planned, Marshall could be playing its home games there as early as March 2021. A minor league team could begin play that summer.

The stadium could host regional and super regional games for the NCAA championship tournament.

Even better, it could be the start of redevelopment of the old industrial area of the Highlawn neighborhood.

The site is across 5th Avenue from the old Flint Group pigment factory. The city paid $750,000 for the site. The first $500,000 came from Huntington’s winnings in the America’s Best Communities Competition. An additional $250,000 came from the Huntington Municipal Development Authority.

Marshall will have to come up with $18 million to $20 million to build the 3,500-seat stadium. The Big Green, the fundraising arm for Marshall athletics, has taken on the task of raising money for the ballpark. It’s logical to assume that effort, which will probably including naming rights, began months before last week’s announcement.

Marshall University Athletic Director Mike Hamrick said construction bids will be opened in November, with the traditional groundbreaking ceremony expected in March 2020.

“That’s a very ambitious timetable, but we believe that can happen,” Hamrick said. “It will be the top stadium in the state of West Virginia and one of the top 20 stadiums in the United States.”

Marshall currently plays its nonconference home games at George T. Smailes Field at the Huntington YMCA Kennedy Center on W.Va. 2 about seven miles from campus. For the past 13 seasons, the Thundering Herd played Conference USA home games at Appalachian Power Park in Charleston and Linda K. Epling Stadium in Beckley.

In communities the size of Huntington, or even the entire Tri-State, it’s difficult if not impossible to build a fan base when your home games are played 50 or more miles away.

The stadium will fill a gap in sports venues in this area. People have said they would like to see minor league baseball return to Huntington. We’ve not had a team here since the Appalachian League, which featured players drafted out of high school, left town in the mid 1990s because St. Cloud Commons park didn’t meet professional standards.

As what is essentially an urban greenfield site, the new stadium should have no problem with that.

Finding money for operation and maintenance costs will be important. Leasing the stadium to a professional team should help in that department. So will eliminating rental and travel costs from having to go to Charleston and Beckley for home games.

This region has benefited in recent years from sports tourism. It has hosted regional youth soccer tournaments, youth baseball tournaments and other events that draw people from hundreds of miles away. Kanawha County and Raleigh County have gotten into that business, too. The entire region benefits as facilities become available for these events.

It’s hard to tell now what new opportunities will become available once the stadium opens.

The 50-plus years it has taken to have a baseball stadium close to campus is more time than it took to bring the East End bridge from concept to completion or to develop Pullman Square out of a nineacre parking lot known as the Superblock. Marshall has had other needs. But now it has the resources to complete what could be the next step in the development of a growing industry in this region.