Politics & Government

New baseball team’s owner declares ‘we’re all in’ as construction starts on ball park

As work started on Wichita’s new baseball stadium Wednesday, the owner of Wichita’s new professional baseball team made a promise to the city.

“We will promise you, every single day of our lives you will get our best effort,” said Lou Schwechheimer, owner of the not-yet-named Triple-A minor-league baseball team coming to Wichita next year.

“We made a commitment to come here, and we’re all in,” he said.

Schwechheimer, who is moving the former Baby Cakes from New Orleans to Wichita, delivered a speech to state and local leaders as he stood in front of a flat expanse of dirt that used to be Lawrence-Dumont Stadium. From that dirt, a new, $75 million, state-of-the-art stadium will take shape over the next 13 months.

The city is expected to hand over the completed ball park to the team by next March, and the project is on a fast track to hit that deadline. Plans for the stadium are being made as the project progresses and leaders gather input from the community.

Tuesday, the Wichita City Council members approved the first round of construction. Wednesday, they plunged ceremonial shovels into sand and posed for photos, part of a groundbreaking ceremony that signified the start of laying utility lines, walls, dugouts and tunnels for the stadium.

That quick turnaround shows the speed the project must progress at if it is going to be ready for the 2020 season.

But there still are decisions to be made.

As part of its design-build process, the project has been split into nine different phases that will come with maximum guaranteed prices in an ongoing negotiation process between developers and the city. Each of those phases will require approval from the council.

The baseball team needs a name. The final look of the stadium is still up for debate. A planned area for commercial development between the stadium and the Arkansas River doesn’t yet have tenants.

And then there’s parking, an issue that has generated some controversy so far.

However the details are settled, Wichita leaders are optimistic the project will transform the city.

“Truly, this project is going to make us that great next American river city,” said Jeff Fluhr, president of the Greater Wichita Partnership.

With the ball park and other developments in town, Wichita “is being placed in a new class of cities,” one that can attract new talent and businesses and keep them here, Fluhr said.

Besides baseball, the stadium is expected to be open to high school football games, concerts and ice skating. Even if there’s no event at the ball park, it’ll be a great place to walk over and eat lunch, Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell said.

“This isn’t just a baseball stadium,” Longwell said. “This is an event center that’s going to see something happening year-round here.”

Longwell credits the versatility of the stadium to the flexibility of the team’s owner, Schwechheimer.

“Not only will there be 70 baseball games a year here, there will be concerts, festivals — we’ll do a lot for the community,” Schwechheimer said.

“We’ll give back to the community. We’ll give more than we’ll ever take, because that’s what we believe in,” he said.

Not every minor-league team owner is as supportive of sharing a stadium. Four years ago, the city started negotiations to bring to Wichita a different minor-league team, one that wasn’t as open to sharing the space, Longwell said.

That deal fell through.

“But we got the better end of the deal,” Longwell said.

“(A multi-purpose stadium) would not have happened if we made a deal with the first team. We would have only gotten baseball. We’re getting so much more than baseball,” he said.

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Chance Swaim won the Betty Gage Holland Award in 2018 for distinguished service to honor and protect the integrity of public dialogue on America’s college campuses. He has been a news reporter for The Wichita Eagle since 2018. You can contact him at 316-269-6752 and cswaim@wichitaeagle.com.