This thing’s actually happening.
It’s been over five years since City of Pensacola voters approved the Maritime Park project, and a rough road all the way. Gone are several key elements from the initial plan, like the Maritime Museum and UWF facilities, and efforts to add private development to the property have stalled. But site work has continued at a steady pace, and the stadium is nearly ready for Pensacola’s new AA baseball team, the Cincinnati Reds-affiliated Blue Wahoos.
Blue Wahoos President Bruce Baldwin walked me through the stadium construction site to answer questions, which I’ve tried to organize by topic below. Baldwin was previously general manager of the Richmond Braves and helped them with the team’s transition to Gwinnett County, Georgia, and the construction of their new ballpark. He said it’s remarkable to see how much progress has been made at the Maritime Park.
“I’ve been fortunate,” he said. “I’ve done this a few times, and each one of them, it’s always fun to remember what this land looked like at one time, and then see where it finishes. It’s gonna be a special place.”
The Blue Wahoos will play their first game at the Maritime Park on April 5, which leaves less than five months to get everything finished. Baldwin said that shouldn’t be a problem, as most of the major milestones have already been completed.
“What happens now is just getting it done. Everything just comes together.”
While we were speaking, Maritime Park Administrator Ed Spears walked over and shared that sentiment.
“There’s 20, 30 different trades working right now in harmony and concert, just making each incremental step forward to get it done,” Spears said. “You put the rails in, you put the seats in, you put the brick on, and all of a sudden, wham, it’s done.”
There have been setbacks and surprises, of course, but nothing unexpected for a project of this size.
“Every day there’s a hundred little, ‘hey, this popped up today, what do we do?’” Spears added. “You just make a decision and go on to the next thing.”
In the field itself, the drainage and irrigation systems are being finished now, after which an additional three feet of gravel and sand will be layered before the sod is rolled out, probably at the end of December.
Baldwin praised Hoar Construction and the other parties involved for their commitment and professionalism.
“There has been a remarkable espirit de corps to get this done, and I think everyone really realizes, one, there’s a timeline, and two, they want to see what they contributed [to the finished park]. It’s going to be a very bright spot for the community.”
Until the northern portion of the Maritime Park is developed, on-site parking for games will be limited. There will be plenty of disabled permit spaces by the stadium, but most people should expect a small walk.
“Years ago, when we built facilities, they were right out in the middle of nowhere with thousands of parking spots,” Baldwin said. “Part of the genesis of building a facility like this is to create a live-work-play destination, no different than what has been done in Louisville, Toledo, Columbus, Durham, Winston-Salem, Greensboro, et cetera.”
Baldwin notes there are several parking garages and lots adjacent to the Maritime Park, with something like 2,000 parking spaces within a ten-minute walk to the stadium.
“The way we figured it out was that it would be no different than parking in a big stadium and you’re out in lot Z or something. Actually, it’s a lot closer than that. I mean, park behind City Hall and some places, that’s less than a five-minute walk.”
They are also investigating a shuttle service on game days that would carry passengers in a loop from downtown locations to the stadium entrance.
There are three levels to the stadium complex. The ground level on the infield side houses the locker rooms for the home and visiting teams, as well as administrative offices. On the outfield side (behind the wall) there will be restrooms accessible from both inside and outside the ballpark, along with a garage for maintenance vehicles.
The main deck will have restrooms, a team merchandise store, fan assistance area, “birthday land” area for kids, and close to 4,000 square feet of food service.
The top deck on the left-field side will be home to the Hancock Club, a private upscale area analogous to the suites in other ballparks. A similar space exists on the right-field side, but will be vacant when the stadium opens. The center area of the top deck is reserved for media and will be equipped for radio and TV production. Baldwin hopes to broadcast play-by-play coverage for all 140 games on local radio stations. This area is also where the scoreboard is operated.
“Our scoreboard is just a mini version of what you might see at Turner Field or Yankee Stadium,” Baldwin said. “It doesn’t have quite all of the capabilities, because those were $10 million scoreboards, but we can do a lot of stuff.”
Also in the outfield, to the left of the scoreboard, is the batter’s eye, a dark-colored screen that gives visual contrast to the ball as it’s pitched.
All structures have been built to withstand the toughest storms, with elevations ranging from +14 to +25 above sea level. “So if there’s a hurricane, the scoreboard, the stadium, and everything here will still be standing,” Baldwin said. “As long as it doesn’t exceed 145 mph wind. And if it does, I’m not sure any one of us will want to be around for that.”
Total permanent seating of the stadium is 4,200, with a maximum capacity of between 5,000 to 5,200.
“We won’t get final numbers until almost on opening day,” said Baldwin.
To date, more than 2,100 season tickets have been sold — over half of the permanent installed seats — with more going every day. This led to a decision to upgrade several sections from flat benches to box seating, featuring fold-up seats and cup holders.
Asked if they had plans to cap the number of season tickets available, to make sure casual fans can still attend single games. Baldwin said they hadn’t addressed that possibility yet. “That would be a nice problem to have.”
And if 5,000 seats isn’t enough, is it possible to expand? Absolutely, said Baldwin. Seating can be added modularly along the left- and right-field decks.
One of most common claims made by critics of the Maritime Park project was that the so-called “multi-use” stadium would only ever be used for baseball. Baldwin says that’s not the case, and that the University of West Florida’s proposed football program would be welcome at the stadium with only minor adjustments to the field.
“We’d have to take out all the pitcher’s mounds, stuff like that. It’d probably take us a couple of days to get ready for football or soccer. Maybe three days max, but it doesn’t take that long.”
One of the advantages of our affiliation with the Cincinnati Reds is getting to share players from their system.
“Some of [next year's team] played in AA last year, some of them played in a couple of different levels of Class A ball as well. We’re very lucky to have Cincinnati as a working partner.”
Baldwin gives enormous credit to Quint and Rishy Studer for their willingness to make the jump to AA baseball.
“It’s a bit of an arduous task to transition independent baseball to affiliated baseball, because of all the hoops and hurdles, the expenses you’ve got to go through to do that. But nonetheless, they had a vision, and it started a long time ago with the Pelicans, and it kind of morphed into what we are today.”
I asked if he’d say they’re pretty hands-on.
His response: “I’d say they’re pretty incredible.”
At Gallery Night tomorrow, the Blue Wahoos will unveil their official logo, with merchandise immediately available for purchase. I’m looking forward to seeing what the design team came up with and will try to have an article up as soon as possible. Stay tuned!