In Fayetteville, a sprawling, unused parking lot sits behind the vacant Hotel Prince Charles and a train station on Hay Street, a relic of old land management prior to the city’s downtown renaissance plan.
In Kinston, 67-year-old Grainger Stadium remains without an occupant in the aging neighborhood three blocks east of N.C. 58.
On every warm night this summer – as the nine minor league baseball teams across North Carolina have attracted crowds as large as 11,688 en route to selling more than 2 million tickets to date this season – the two sites have sat empty, silent and baseball-free.
But officials from the two cities hope to change that soon.
As the sport continues to drive economic development and community involvement throughout the state, Fayetteville and Kinston – which last hosted teams in 2000 and 2011, respectively – are working with Major League Baseball organizations to try to bring the minor leagues back.
The Fayetteville city council voted unanimously Wednesday to approve a memorandum of understanding with the Houston Astros, while Kinston officials have a contract in place with the Texas Rangers that will last until April. The deals could bring Advanced-A affiliates to the two cities.
Leaders in both cities are hopeful about the impact of bringing in teams.
“We’re looking at it as an opportunity to transform our downtown area,” Fayetteville mayor pro tempore Mitch Colvin said. “I think that it’s an opportunity to bring our community together … (and) add family entertainment to the portfolio of what to do in Fayetteville.”
“The appetite for baseball in eastern North Carolina, specifically Kinston, is great,” Kinston city manager Tony Sears said. “As people have moved to North Carolina ... they need that sense of community, and they need something to identify with, and I think minor league baseball gives them that ability.”
Both cities have had tastes of the minor leagues in the past, but weren’t able to retain their teams.
In 2000, the Cape Fear Crocs (formerly the Fayetteville Generals) ended their 13-year run in Fayetteville by moving to New Jersey.
The then-Montreal Expos Single-A affiliate perennially struggled to draw fans to J.P. Riddle Stadium – which still exists as the home of the college summer league Fayetteville SwampDogs – and, by late 1999, was regularly hosting crowds of fewer than 700.
In recent years, however, the SwampDogs have attracted some of the largest crowds in the Coastal Plain League, averaging over 1,800 per game this summer.
“We’ve seen the desire for baseball in our community is quite high,” Colvin said.
In 2011, the Cleveland Indians moved their Advanced-A affiliate from Kinston, where it had played since 1987, to Zebulon to replace the old Double-A incarnation of the Carolina Mudcats, which had moved to Florida.
Ticket sales had been an issue at Grainger Stadium as well, as the Indians had ranked last in the Carolina League in attendance in six of their final seven years in Kinston and had been the only team to average fewer than 2,000 fans per game in all six of those years.
With a population of just over 21,000 – down about 4,000 since 1990 – the market was one of the smallest in the country with a team. The city also didn’t take full advantage of the team’s economic benefits, Sears said.
“We understand that maybe we didn’t do the best job of capitalizing on (the team) last time,” Sears said. “But some things have shifted economically with our downtown; we’re experiencing some revitalization.”
Both cities have showcased baseball events this year.
What the Indians did or what the Rangers will do is give us that one common thread where we all come together. That sense of community is really important, and I think that’s something we’ve been missing the last five years.
Tony Sears, Kinston city manager
North Carolina hosted a Major League Baseball regular-season game for the first time in July when the Atlanta Braves played the Miami Marlins at Fort Bragg, outside Fayetteville.
Grainger has already hosted a few baseball events in 2016, including a three-game series between Air Force and Navy in February, a junior college tournament in May and a number of high school games.
Astros, Rangers interested
Opportunities to bring the sport back to the two communities have arisen in recent years due to a messy situation in the California League, spurring the Astros and Rangers to consider switching their Advanced-A minor-league affiliations to the Carolina League.
The Carolina League contains eight teams, including the Mudcats, Winston-Salem Dash and Myrtle Beach Pelicans.
The Rangers-affiliated High Desert Mavericks of the California League signed a $1-per-year lease with the city of Adelanto, Calif., in 2012. However, with the Mavericks’ average attendance having dropped 50 percent in two years and Adelanto mired in financial crises, the city attempted to evict the Mavericks in April and only a federal injunction allowed the team to keep its home for the 2016 season.
Aware of the volatile situation in High Desert, the Rangers signed a two-year lease with Kinston in 2015 that gives them until April to bring a team to 4,100-seat Grainger Stadium, Sears said.
He added that “the ‘legalese’ is done” on a contract that would lock a Rangers’ affiliate into Kinston for the next 12 years unless total annual attendance drops below 100,000.
Last year, the Rangers attempted to buy the Wilmington (Del.) Blue Rocks and move them to Kinston, with the Binghamton (N.Y.) Mets then moving to Wilmington. That plan fell through when Binghamton was sold in December to an owner committed to keeping the Mets in place.
Sears remains optimistic that a team will be bound for Kinston within the next eight months.
“We’ve been in contact (with the Rangers), they’ve assured us that they’re working on it and we don’t have reason to believe that they’re not,” he said. “We’re confident that, at some point, there’s going to be a team that’s going to be looking for a home, and we’re just happy to be a home for that team.”
The only roadblock to a team playing in Kinston in 2017 would be the need for a few improvements to Grainger Stadium, including new lighting, padding on the outfield wall and playing surface upgrades, according to parks and recreation director Bill Ellis.
Fayetteville, meanwhile, remains several years away from having a completed, minor league-caliber stadium, but that hasn’t stopped the city from making strides toward acquiring a future tenant.
After Wednesday’s vote, the city and the Astros have a memorandum of understanding in place to lay out negotiations for the coming months. If a contract is reached within a two-month time period goal set by the MOU, the Astros would bring a Carolina League team to the city and would be locked into 30 years of lease payments to Fayetteville, starting at $250,000 annually and increasing every five years for an eventual total of $9 million.
The Astros’ Advanced-A affiliate is located in Lancaster, Calif., but Fayetteville councilman Jim Arp said the Bakersfield Blaze – a Seattle Mariners affiliate – could be the team on the move to Fayetteville.
Colvin said Fayetteville has been working with developers to plan the new stadium, which would open in 2019. An initial rendering for the Hay Street location was unveiled to the city council and the public in June and an updated version is being developed.
If a team arrives before 2019 – a possibility opened by Wednesday’s vote – it would need to play in a temporary site that has yet to be determined, according to Arp.
Pat O’Connor, president of minor league baseball, wrote in an email statement that he was encouraged by the two cities’ enthusiasm but could not speak specifically about negotiations.
“We are encouraged by the progress being made toward returning minor league baseball to Fayetteville and Kinston, two great baseball cities with long histories in this game,” O’Connor wrote. “Hopefully an agreement can be reached that will be beneficial to all parties involved, and while we are excited about the possibilities, it is still too early in the process to comment any further.”
Models of success and failure
If Kinston and Fayetteville receive teams in the coming years, they’ll have a number of examples around the state on which to model plans for development and fan engagement.
A 2011 study by the Journal of Sports Economics found that the introduction of an Advanced-A team boosted a community’s per-capita income by an average of $161 annually, and the Durham Visitors Bureau estimated in 2007 that minor league baseball added more than $47 million annually ($55 million adjusted for current inflation) to the state economy.
The effects of that boost have been visible in Durham, which has revitalized its formerly tobacco warehouse-dominated downtown since the construction of Durham Bulls Athletic Park in 1995. Visitors to the stadium in 2015 added $43.4 million to the Durham economy alone, according to the Durham Visitors Bureau.
$33 million - Value added to Durham economy in 2010 by Durham Bulls Athletic Park
Minor league baseball has proven popular in smaller North Carolina markets, too.
Burlington, a town of 52,000, has seen attendance for its rookie-level team (the lowest rung of the minor leagues) nearly double in the last five years despite playing in a 56-year-old stadium.
Burlington general manager Ryan Keur sees his team’s situation as “very comparable” to Kinston, but Fayetteville, given its need to build a new stadium, may be more comparable to the circumstances faced by Gwinnett, Ga., in 2008 – and that could be worrisome.
Gwinnett’s stadium went over budget by $19 million, proposed nearby developments never happened and the city had to use $1.6 million in tax payments last year to simply cover the stadium’s annual bond, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Colvin admitted that the “pretty substantial ... failure rate” of sporting facilities weighs on his mind, and it seems to also resonate with Fayetteville residents, as 11 of 16 speakers at a public meeting in Fayetteville last week argued against the stadium plan, according to the Fayetteville Observer.
Those worries didn’t show themselves at Wednesday’s meeting, however, when the MOU sailed through.
‘Sense of community’
For half a decade now, Grainger Stadium has sat idle, its green seats and cracked concrete staircases rarely feeling the weight of a single spectator.
But Bill Ellis remembers the days during the Kinston Indians’ 2011 playoff run when it was filled to the brim as fans savored what they thought might be the final professional baseball games ever played in their city.
That atmosphere is exactly what Kinston officials are hoping to reincarnate come next summer.
“We have three distinct high schools, and it’s a fun rivalry that everyone in Lenoir County has, but what the Indians did or what the Rangers will do is give us that one common thread where we all come together,” Sears said. “That sense of community is really important, and I think that’s something we’ve been missing the last five years.”
Meanwhile, it’s been more than a decade and a half since Fayetteville has seen minor league action within city limits.
And even as hopes of downtown rejuvenation spur on the project, Fayetteville councilmen see adding a Carolina League team as a way to legitimize the state’s sixth-most populous city to the rest of minor league baseball-loving North Carolina.
“Fayetteville is at that point now, as a municipality, that we’re not second-rung to anybody anymore,” Arp said. “People are looking for something to identify with their city… I think this is just another piece of that to help us attract people and bring people into our community.”
2015 minor league attendance in North Carolina
Charlotte Knights: 9,428 (highest in the nation)
Durham Bulls: 7,814
Greensboro Grasshoppers: 5,313
Winston-Salem Dash: 4,456
Carolina Mudcats: 3,016
Asheville Tourists: 2,670
Hickory Crawdads: 2,205
Kannapolis Intimidators: 2,056
Burlington Royals: 1,355