If You Build It…

She has seen, and survived, it all.
Through three name changes, four renovations, a trendy Astroturf playing surface, the abandonment of a long-time major league affiliate, and the constant digging, clawing, and spitting of hundreds of potential major league stars and career minor league baseball players, she has remained strong, as summer after summer thousands of fans passed through her turnstiles.
And now, 25 years after the opening of Tulsa Driller Stadium, the movement for a new, modern, fan-friendly facility in Tulsa has gained momentum. %9
“The county owns Driller Stadium, and our lease runs through 2009,” said Chuck Lamson, president and majority owner of the franchise. “It’s a great working relationship.”
But, Lamson points out, in an era of park-like, amenity filled ballparks, outdated Driller Stadium is easily the oldest facility in the Texas League.
“Springfield and Corpus Christi came online in 2005. Little Rock will open in 2007, Springdale for 2008, Midland came on in 2002, and Frisco opened in 2003,” he said. “Our stadium, built in 1981, and San Antonio, built in 1992, are the oldest in the Texas League.”
“We are behind because there have been so many changes made in the past 25 years, since our existing facilities were built.”
“The Texas League, as a whole, is in good shape, and we are hoping to get this new stadium to be able to keep up with the Joneses.”
The stadium that Lamson speaks of is a new, downtown facility that is part of Washington D.C.-based Global Development Partners massive downtown revitalization project.
The project, known as the “East End,” would encompass more than 14 city blocks and feature more than 1.9 million SF of mixed-use development; including 450,000 SF of retail and dining space, 800 units of residential space, three hotels and 150,000 SF of office space.
The new Driller Stadium, according to a brochure available on the Global Development Partners Web site, would serve as the “centerpiece” of the development.
The current facility situation isn’t the first time the city has dealt with an aging stadium and a thriving franchise looking for friendlier confines.
In fact, it was a stadium conflict that brought the current team to Tulsa.
The Drillers set up shop in Oklahoma in 1977, when a Texas Rangers-affiliated, Lafayette, La.-based, Double-A baseball team was moved to Tulsa to fill the void left by a Tulsa Oiler franchise that moved to New Orleans.
Before 1977, the Triple-A Oilers had been Tulsa’s resident minor league baseball club; but after repeated clashes over the crumbling condition of Driller Stadium’s predecessor, Oiler Park, owner A. Ray Smith moved the team to the Big Easy.
As a gift to the Tulsa’s newest franchise, the newly branded Drillers, Tulsa County completed a 4,800 seat, multi-purpose stadium that featured an artificial surface in 1981, naming it for its chief benefactor, local oil executive Robert Sutton.
Sutton, however, was convicted of fraud in 1982, and as a result the park was renamed Tulsa County Stadium. In 1989, Drillers Stadium received its current name.
Landlocked Driller Stadium sits at the corner of 15th Street and Yale Avenue and is surrounded by shopping centers, Tulsa County Fairgrounds and Fair Meadows horse track.
The stadium seats 10,997.
According to Lamson, the stadium, while boasting the largest facility in Double-A baseball, needs a number of improvements to make the park the entertainment mecca that today’s baseball-minded consumers demand.
He also believes the honor of having the “largest Double-A stadium” is a dubious one.
“We have almost 11,000 seats, and that is too many on a night in-night out basis. We would rather have a high demand and limited supply.”
Lamson said the trend is for a more city centric, fan-friendly atmosphere with a number of stations to entertain the Driller fan base.
“I would like a ballpark with an intimate setting, on a large, seven or eight acre footprint,” he said. “It should contain a lot of fan friendliness; such as hospitality areas, a lot of leg room, picnic areas, a wide concourse that goes all the way around a park-like setting, and a play area for kids. A comfortable place that would last 30 or more years for the community.”
“Something that people would be proud of, something unique to Tulsa.”
Lamson anticipates working with Global Development Partners on the design of the new facility.
“We have had discussions,” he said. “When the developers start to work on the design elements of a stadium, we will be involved in those discussions.”
Obviously, there would be budget constraints, “but we would be allowed to put our vision on paper and, as the baseball people, they would heavily take that into account.”
He believes the East End development and a baseball park will be an asset to the city of Tulsa.
“As communities have come on board to build stadiums, they have recognized the economic benefit,” he said. “The trend of new stadiums has spurred a lot of positive changes and has been a very good thing for minor league baseball.
“I believe the community will support the change because the excitement. It would help in the revitalization of the community, which would help the overall economic climate. It would be a snowball effect.”
“I hope we can make this happen because of the excitement of downtown,” Lamson said. “It would be very complimentary to the Arena and would provide another large gathering place, yet would not be in direct competition. It would add to the energy of downtown and bring more people down there. Create the need for more restaurants and housing and shops and bars.”
The impact on the Driller franchise, which he estimates at current market value to be worth $10-15 million, would be evident immediately following the opening of the park.
“Initially I would think we could almost double attendance, if not outright double it,” he said. “At the very least, I would imagine we could go from our present 350,000 fans per season to about 500,000. That would put us among the elite in minor league baseball.”
“We feel the downtown development and ballpark would be beginning of a new era for Drillers baseball,” Lamson said. “A new facility in the downtown would be exciting, it would allow us to do all kinds of new things. New technology, new hospitality options, new facilities, a new design.”
Lamson believes the move to a new, downtown facility makes business sense, even if some sentimental doubters remain.
“Some people, from the outside looking in, don’t realize that we are like any other small business,” he said. ”I have health insurance, workmans’ compensation, tons of paperwork, all those things that go into running a business.”
“Its not all glamour, it’s a good small business trying to be a good corporate citizen.”
“We are interested in the new stadium because of the renewed interest in downtown. As a small business, you must look at good opportunities for your business,” he said. “We aren’t unhappy here. But when somebody is willing to do something new, you have to strike while the iron is hot.”
“The East End development, whether we’re a part of it or not, would be a great thing for the community. But we would like to be a part of it.” ?

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