MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Pat O’Conner, president of minor league baseball, New York-Penn League President Ben Hayes and several local dignitaries were on campus Tuesday morning to discuss the potential for professional baseball in Morgantown.
“Vision is a pretty cool thing and there is a tremendous vision here in Morgantown and across the river at what has a chance to happen here,” said O’Conner. “There are more than 41 million fans per year who attend minor league baseball games. Our economic engine is over $700 million a year in gross venue, so you are becoming part of a bigger thing and we welcome the opportunity for Morgantown to join our family.”
Last December, the Monongalia County Commission approved a tax-increment financing plan that would help support the construction of a baseball stadium that could be jointly used by West Virginia University, a professional baseball team and possibly Fairmont State University.
A TIF freezes the tax rates of an area and allows counties to use the funds from future economic growth to pay down bond debt incurred for infrastructural work. Area officials estimate as many 1,500 permanent jobs could be created by the project.
Earlier this month, the state Senate unanimously passed a bill that would allow the county to move ahead with the project. The bill must now go through the House of Delegates before being signed by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.
Local developers plan to construct the proposed baseball stadium at the University Town Centre, located next to Interstate 79 near Granville. In addition to a new ballpark, associated infrastructure and road work would be needed to accommodate the additional traffic to the area, requiring another exit to be constructed along I-79 between Star City and Westover.
“We are really excited about the possibility of relocating one of our franchises to Morgantown,” said Hayes. “Taking look at the location of this proposal, it’s going to be an outstanding location for a baseball stadium.”
According to Hayes, the New York-Penn League is 74 years old and is considered one of the premier short-season leagues in minor league baseball.
“We average over 1.7 million in attendance annually and we’ve had a number of hall of famers and stars come through our league, players such as Warren Spahn, Nellie Fox to Wade Boggs,“ said Hayes. “The 14 clubs are all affiliated with major league baseball clubs. We start mid-June and end in first week of September, and the vast majority of the players in this league come from the June draft.”
Hayes said the proposed joint partnership with WVU is very common in short-season minor league baseball.
“Because we are short-season it really fits well in working with other universities,” Hayes said. “For example, we manage and operate the facility at Penn State University, so we share that facility with the Nittany Lions baseball team. We also have ball clubs on the campus of Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, N.Y., the University of Massachusetts on its Lowell campus in Lowell, Mass., as well as a ball club on the Vermont campus.”
West Virginia University Deputy Director of Athletics Mike Parsons noted the impact a new stadium had on the success of WVU’s two soccer programs, and he believes the baseball program at WVU could get a similar boost with a new facility as well.
“As West Virginia University moved into the Big 12 Conference, it means we are playing collegiate baseball at a much higher level. Just as we did with our soccer stadium, a new facility will have a significant impact on the success of the program in the future and today’s news is very important for a number of reasons for our community,” noted Parsons.
“It ensures that our stadium will not only be a home for a team, but a home for a team affiliated with a major league franchise. Also, it ensures that we will have a greater economic impact on the entire region. West Virginia University will be playing there in March, April and May and then a minor league team will pick up and play in June, July, August and September,” he said.
O’Conner also believes the WVU program will see a big lift with a new stadium.
“I think it will be a facility that you will be proud of and also a facility that will help you recruit better players, host regional tournaments and be in a situation to elevate your game, so to speak,” he said.
O’Conner said a project of this magnitude couldn’t have been conceived without great vision throughout the community.
“I had an opportunity to visit with (WVU Director of Athletics) Oliver Luck and it was very clear that this was a man who loves his university, loves his job, but also had a vision,” O’Conner said. “It was at that point that the seed was planted. Then Ben, Oliver and the people who are here working on a day-to-day basis have nurtured that seed into what is going to be a phenomenal asset, not only for Morgantown, but the surrounding community and the whole state of West Virginia.
“I’d also like to thank the elected officials, their staffs and all of the people who put in the work and did all of the heavy lifting and carried the water on this. This is a time when it takes great vision and great courage to step out of the box with public spending and allocate funds for a project like this,” he noted. “The state is to be commended and the county and city are to be commended. You will not regret what you are about to do from an economic standpoint, from a quality-of-life standpoint, and just from an affordable family entertainment standpoint," said O'Conner.
The project, if approved, could be completed by 2015.