Local officials hear baseball team pitch

PARKERSBURG – The possibilities that could come with a minor league ballpark are many – future Major League players, big-name entertainers, perhaps professional women’s softball – but the time to make them a reality is limited.

That’s the message local government and business leaders heard Tuesday from Stuart Williams, majority owner of the Washington Wild Things and a potential partner for bringing a Frontier League baseball team to Parkersburg.

Williams spoke at a luncheon organized by the Wood County Development Authority’s Parkersburg Baseball Study Committee and attended by more than 60 people Tuesday in the Blennerhassett Hotel’s Charleston Ballroom. He emphasized that he was not there to pitch his own involvement in the project but to share his experience with the Wild Things and their stadium in Washington, Pa., and how that model could apply locally.

“By every measure, this effort is a community effort,” Williams said.

The Frontier League consists of 14 teams that are not affiliated with Major League Baseball clubs. One of them, the Frontier Greys, is a traveling team assembled to give the league an even number of participants.

The league would like to add a franchise with a permanent home, Williams said, and Parkersburg isn’t the only location with an eye on filling that slot.

“Once the 14th team comes, then things get more complicated as far as joining the Frontier League,” he said.

Parkersburg Mayor Bob Newell said the second phase of a feasibility study for the project – focusing on locations, financing options and a business plan – will be underway soon and action won’t be far off.

“Whatever we’re going to do, we’re going to do in the next few months,” he said.

And if the stadium is built, it might one day be home to more than a baseball team.

Starting this year, the Wild Things will share CONSOL Energy Park with the PA Rebellion, a new member of the four-team National Pro Fastpitch women’s softball league.

“This is the highest level of play in the United States,” Williams said.

As part of the deal to bring the Rebellion into the NPF, Williams also obtained the rights to eventually have teams in other areas.

“I do have the rights to Parkersburg,” he said.

Williams emphasized that CONSOL Energy Park is more than a venue for baseball and softball. The Wild Things play 50 games a year at their home field, and the Rebellion will play 22. On other days, the park serves as a venue for numerous high school and college games, as well as charitable events, professional wrestling, political rallies and concerts featuring performers like Taylor Swift and Styx.

At this point, there are only five days from May 1 to Aug. 31 when there won’t be an event at the Wild Things’ stadium, and Williams said he wants to see those dates filled as well.

“The story isn’t about the teams,” he said. “It’s really about the park itself and the venue.”

Since the park opened in 2002, Wild Things games have drawn 1.8 million patrons, 60 percent of them from outside Washington County, Pa., and generated 25,000 overnight stays in the area. Special events have brought in 1.1 million patrons, 70 percent of whom came from outside the county.

The area around the stadium filled up with development, said Tom Rooney, president of the Rooney Sports and Entertainment Group, which is working with the local development authority on the project.

One member of the audience asked Williams how the Wild Things and their stadium came together.

“The stadium funding was done by groups in the locality,” he said. “It was spearheaded by a politician up there.”

Williams and the ownership group stepped in after the original group pushing for the team backed out. The team agreed to guarantee payment of out-of-market rent and provide upkeep of the stadium, in addition to negotiating an option to buy the stadium for the outstanding balance of the loan, which the organization did recently.

Rooney estimated a field in Parkersburg could cost in the area of $10 million. Williams said that could come perhaps from a combination of private donations and government funding.

If he did take part, Williams said he’d want to involve plenty of local people as well.

“I would want to have local investors as a part of what’s going on here,” Williams said.