From decaying ballpark to crown jewel

by Ogi Overman

There are a few folks who’ve logged more hours inside Greensboro’s World War Memorial Stadium than I, but most of them are dead. Among the living, my pals Bill Self and David Hoggard, both of whom have been profiled by the News & Record lately, will attest that my credentials are in order, as fan, reporter and official scorer. I join them in feeling that we as a community have a vested interest in the preservation of the old ballyard. But the question is what form that preservation may take and who’s going to pay for it. Since the Sutton-Kennerly report came out in June, saying that repairs to the stadium would cost in the $3-4 million range, and the city only has $1.5 million allocated, several ideas have been bandied about on ways to transform the 82-year-old venue. City councilman Robbie Perkins suggested that the farmers’ market be moved from across the street and expanded; David Wharton, a leader of the Aycock neighborhood association, offered that it could be made a seven-day-a-week operation; and David Hoggard, Parks & Rec member and longtime ballpark advocate, added that it could be an entrepreneurial place.

While I would heartily endorse all those ideas, I’m not sure that a fulltime farmers’ market, in and of itself, will be enough of a draw to make the ballpark the gathering place it needs to be. In fact, no single attraction will be enough, even if the downtown lines are redrawn all the way out to Yanceyville Street. What needs to happen is for it to be made into a multi-use, year-round facility, with revolving uses as the seasons change, combined with some permanent businesses. First the bad news: The diamond itself will no longer be used for baseball. Before we get all nostalgic, remember that the original intent of the venue was a football stadium; as long as the façade remains, it will retain enough of its character as a memorial to the county’s World War I casualties to keep it on the National Register of Historic Places. Our memories — my memories — will be intact. The engineers’ assessment that the concrete infrastructure is almost beyond repair means that the bleachers may have to go too, with two exceptions. Leave the covered area behind home plate, which includes the entrances and concession stands, and the Grandstand in left field, thereby saving $2 or $3 mil. The farmers’ market could set up along first base/right field at minimal cost, and a permanent structure connecting the backstop seats with the Grandstand along left field could be built, housing perhaps a dozen businesses and/or

offices.Now we get really creative. I’ve been on this bandwagon for the past 10years, and this may be our last chance to do something that sets usapart from our peer cities. Greenways are lovely and high-rise,mixed-use condos are a fine addition and a historic/arts district iscrucial, but what this town really needs is a frozen pond. There is astream that actually runs under the deep right-field corner that couldpossibly feed the pond that we would dig in shallow center field. Insummer it would have a multi-colored fountain, and in winter we wouldlay some hockey pipes in it, freeze it the first week of December, andmove our Festival of Lights celebration to the old ballyard. Food andbeverage vendors, strolling carolers and barbershop singers, benches,kiosks and chimineas would encircle the pond. Skates would be rented toeveryone from budding Olympians to bankwalkers. Latter-day NormanRockwells will appear. Also, a portable stage with a PA couldeasily be brought in for concerts most of the year. The Children’s HomeSociety beach music concerts could be moved there, as could the EMFFringe Festival, Blues Preservation Society Amateur Contest, SundayEvening in the Park, Wyndham kickoff party and whatever else animaginative promoter or radio station might want to bring in. Picturefestival seating on the infield and stands with a pond and fountainserving as a backdrop behind the stage. The Grandstand wouldbe a year-round restaurant/sports bar, open-air for seven months andglass-enclosed for five. It could also be partitioned and rented outfor meetings, special events, wedding receptions, etc. Thepossibilities are endless. Now, for the coup de grace — anopen-air Imax theatre screen in center field. Yes, the cost would be inthe $4 million range, but the return would be enormous. Big-budgetfeature films such as Harry Potter and Star Wars arealready starting to capitalize on the huge-screen phenomena, and moreand more filmmakers are starting to jump on the bandwagon. Allthese projects taken as a whole make Greensboro the envy of every burgin the state. We’ll be viewed as visionaries and urban pioneers, and Iguarantee the ancillary benefits will ripple into every segment of theeconomy. Next week I’ll tell you how we’re going to pay for it.

Ogi may be reached at ogiman100@yahoo. com and seen on “Triad Today” hosted by Jim Longworth on ABC 45 at 6:30 a.m. Fridays and on WMYV 48 at 10 p.m. Sundays.