Major ‘minor’ possibilities

Published 1:41 pm Thursday, December 22, 2016

Editor’s note: What is the feasibility of a minor league baseball team coming to Farmville, and what impact could it have on the town?

Sports fans in Farmville and the surrounding area have good reason to be cautiously optimistic about the potential of being able to go downtown within the next decade and take in some professional baseball.

Longwood University’s conceptual master plan announced in 2015 has been a catalyst that has gotten talks rolling about the possibility of a minor league baseball team coming to town.

One of the central highlights of the master plan is the placement of a baseball diamond in downtown Farmville, where the Longwood University Real Estate Foundation (LUREF) recently purchased more than 5.5 acres for $6.8 million.

The acreage covers the former Buffalo Shook Co. Inc. property and part of the former W.C. Newman Co. concrete plant on West Third Street, and the master plan cites this as the home of the future Longwood University baseball field.

Justin Pope

Justin Pope

While the Lancers would be the main attraction in the spring, university officials are interested in the stadium drawing crowds for far more than just three months out of the year, which has brought up the possibility of pro ball.

“With regards to a minor league baseball team, I’m hopeful,” said Justin Pope, chief of staff to Longwood President W. Taylor Reveley IV. “I think we’re a great community for minor league baseball, we’re a great market. I hope … we’re going to have a great facility here that would be attractive.”

And Longwood has already mixed its hope with action.

“We have reached out to some folks for some guidance to see if our optimism that we would be a good community for minor league baseball was shared by people who really know the business, and they were optimistic, too,” Pope said. “There are, obviously, no guarantees, and the stars would have to align about what franchises are in what circumstances in what exact moment, and we’re a long way from that point, but they gave us reason to be cautiously optimistic that we might be able to attract a team here.”

Pope emphasized that the hope for downtown baseball is not entirely dependent on luring a minor league team and no assumption is being made that it will happen, but the new stadium could certainly help set the stage.

“I think we’d certainly have the finest baseball facility in the Big South (Conference), and a minor league team would really be icing on the cake,” he said.

Both Farmville Mayor David Whitus and Town Manager Gerald Spates communicated excitement over the possibility of this icing.

“It is exciting and holds much potential for our downtown,” Whitus said. “The town is excited about the possibilities, but much has to be worked out.”

In a previous interview, Whitus highlighted how the field, as well as a planned softball diamond on Depot Street, and the activity associated with both would change the dynamics of Farmville and bring people from a wide geographic area, spurring more business and economic growth.

David Whitus

David Whitus

Spates pointed to how Farmville can be particularly ideal for drawing people.

“The big plus we have — we’re in the central part of the state, so you can come here from just about everywhere, and it’s equal distance,” he said. “And our shopping area is 120,000 people.”

In identifying what would attract a minor league team to Farmville, Pope said the central attraction is Farmville itself.

“The idea of downtown baseball and a vibrant neighborhood is a part of that,” he said; similar to Spates’ comment, he added, “I think our location is good. We have a pretty good catchment area,” referring to the population of Farmville’s greater metro area that would come into town to shop or go to restaurants or go to a baseball game.

Pope said that there are “probably 100-150,000 people who come here to shop and I think absolutely would be part of the market to come into town to watch a baseball game. So, I think it’s really just the place we are that’s the appeal.”

The age and quality of a baseball stadium is also expected to be a factor in Farmville’s favor.

“There are a lot of old minor league facilities, so just having a quality, new facility itself I think would be part of the appeal,” Pope said.

He also cited Longwood’s proximity to the stadium and its involvement in the project as elements that could help draw a team.

“We know that baseball franchises are increasingly interested in partnerships with higher education so that they can offer that to the players they draft,” Pope said. “Most of the players that are drafted by professional baseball never make it to the major leagues, and so they may be interested in partnerships with higher education institutions, and I think that would be part of the appeal, as well.”

Based on preliminary consultation with people who know the business, Pope said Longwood has been told that Farmville is certainly smaller than a lot of minor league baseball communities, “but given where we are and given what we have to potentially offer, they don’t necessarily see that as a fatal obstacle to persuading a team to come.”

Pope sees the possibility of a minor league team being here within five to 10 years.

Gerald Spates

Gerald Spates

“I don’t think that’s unrealistic to say that,” he said. “I hope not even that long, but there’s still a lot of road to travel, a lot to work out.”

And that work will involve clear communication and listening to the people of Farmville.

“The very first thing I think we need to do is sell the public on the idea and get the public’s input on what concerns they have, because they’re the ones that are going to be directly affected by it,” Spates said. “That would be my main concern is to make sure that all the issues are addressed up front that may come up before you do anything.”

In terms of ways the public will be affected, Spates cited traffic, parking, noise and lights. He said how businesses downtown will be affected should be considered and added that use of the train station would be affected as well.

“Parking’s going to be a big thing,” he said.

Coming next week: A look at minor league baseball in Salem.