Bob Lutz

Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, minor-league baseball’s status hang in balance

Lawrence-Dumont Stadium was built in 1934 and has undergone renovations throughout the years.
Lawrence-Dumont Stadium was built in 1934 and has undergone renovations throughout the years. File photo

What does the future of professional baseball in Wichita look like?

Is there a future for professional baseball in Wichita?

The questions about pro ball and the status of 82-year-old Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, years past its peak, outnumber answers. We’re at that titillating-yet-frustrating point where possibilities abound but nothing has risen above conjecture.

I spoke with Wichita mayor Jeff Longwell this week and have been in touch with others in city government. And they’re not saying much, except to acknowledge that the ballpark and the brand of baseball that could someday be played there are in their conversations.

The reason these conversations are taking place is because Colorado Springs, which currently is the Triple-A home of the Milwaukee Brewers, is looking for a new city. That city could be San Antonio, which is in discussions to build a new ballpark downtown and move from Double-A, where it has been a Texas League member since becoming a charter member in 1888, to Triple-A. And if that happens, the San Antonio franchise could move to Wichita. Or Lubbock. Or Amarillo. Or somewhere else.

But Wichita is in the mix.

The push here to build a ballpark would go hand in hand with a return of affiliated minor-league baseball, which left after the 2007 season when the Double-A Wranglers, a Kansas City Royals farm team, moved to Springdale, Ark. But Wichita has a 75-year history with affiliated baseball, though attendance at times has been spotty.

The Wingnuts, an independent team in the American Association, have filled the void nicely since 2008, fielding competitive teams every year and reaching the AA championship series three times in the past four seasons and winning a championship in 2013.

Winnipeg defeated the Wingnuts 11-4 on Monday night, Sept. 19, 2016, at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium to win the American Association championship. (Jeffrey Lutz / The Wichita Eagle)

But the only chance for a new stadium, which Wichita needs as a part of a revitalization of the river corridor between Douglas and Maple on McLean Boulevard, is for affiliated baseball to make a comeback. And the only chance for affiliated baseball to make a comeback is for the city to find a way to finance a $40- to $50-million ballpark project.

There is debate, as there is with any potential major expenditure, as to how badly Wichita needs any of this. My answer: Quite badly.

The area along the Arkansas River has been vastly underutilized for years. Lawrence-Dumont Stadium was once a Wichita crown jewel. But for many years, it has been in deterioration with only cosmetic and superficial changes.

It’s time to knock the place down and start all over. It’s time to build a facility that can be used year-round for other sports and entertainment purposes. It’s time to build stores, shops and condos surrounding the ballpark. It’s time to make Lawrence-Dumont, or whatever a new stadium would be named, a destination spot.

Longwell, who has stated his desire for a new stadium many times, won’t say much about the state of things.

In fact, this is it: “We are honored for people to now reach out to us because of our great place to call home.”

There’s a good amount of ambiguity in that statement, to be sure. But beyond the words, there’s also an acknowledgment that Wichita could be back in the mix for affiliated baseball and that there’s a synergy to making a new ballpark happen.

Unquestionably, there are details to be worked out and it’s unlikely that a new stadium, with amenities designed to attract crowds, will be ready before at least 2019. San Antonio city officials have admitted to running into roadblocks in their attempt to build a new stadium that would land them a Triple-A franchise and it’s unlikely anything will happen there until 2020.

There are many pieces to this puzzle in logistics, financing and timelines. But this is Wichita’s best chance in years to make a huge splash. The right people are in place in local government, people who value the city’s baseball history and the enormous pull of Lawrence-Dumont’s history and place in our culture.

A baseball stadium can attract people for a minimum of 70 days per year. Throw in multiple other uses — restaurants, a National Baseball Congress museum and Hall of Fame and residential development — and you have a vibrant, new area that can boost the Delano District and the WaterWalk area east of the river near Maple.

Not to mention what it would do for Wichita’s resurgent downtown.

Or we could do nothing except continue to provide some annual patchwork to Lawrence-Dumont Stadium and wait for it to collapse.

OK, the situation isn’t quite that dire, but there is an opportunity here for Wichita to grab for something far beyond the status quo. And to do so, potentially, without severely burdening taxpayers.

Something big could happen. Be excited.

Pitching sensation Roger Clemens delighted the crowd as he pitched for the Kansas Stars in the National Baseball Congress Tournament on Wednesday at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium. (Video by Fernando Salazar/The Wichita Eagle/Aug. 10, 2016)

Members of the Kansas Stars, a team consisting of former big leaguers, along with country star Toby Keith, signed autographs for fans outside of Lawrence-Dumont Stadium on Monday night. Proceeds for tickets sold for the autograph session went towa