A Field of Dreams
“You see things; and you say, ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were and I say, ‘Why not?’” Of course, that was a famous phrase from George Bernard Shaw’s play Back To Methuselah that was paraphrased many times by the Kennedys.
Well, you can also count West Virginia University Director of Athletics Oliver Luck among the dreamers willing to say, Why not?
When Luck returned to WVU to preside over the Mountaineer athletic department in 2010, he quickly familiarized himself with the arms race that is going on in college sports today with departments across the country spending millions on new athletic facilities.
It was obvious to Luck that West Virginia had several issues that needed to be addressed, particularly with the baseball program. If baseball was ever going to get off the ground at WVU then dramatic facility improvements needed to be considered – either by spending millions to fix the current one or looking into the possibility of constructing a new one.
These days, if you are not building something new or improving what you already have then you are falling way behind in the eyes of prospective student-athletes. Good, bad or indifferent, that is just a simple fact of life.
“Everything else may have been right – campus, academics and location – but our baseball venue was a real downer for recruiting,” Luck said of Hawley Field, Mountaineer baseball’s current home park. “Our previous head coach mentioned to me that he would lose a recruit the moment that the young man set eyes on Hawley Field. It was pretty obvious to me, even before (the move to the Big 12) that if we really wanted to be competitive in baseball, whether it was in the Big East or any other conference, we really needed to upgrade the facility because we could not attract the top recruits.
“It’s really the same argument that was being waged with Old Mountaineer Field and New Mountaineer Field in the late 1970s (when Luck was a Mountaineer quarterback),” he continued. “Guys want to play in nice facilities. There are a lot of things that have changed about recruiting over the past few decades, but that hasn’t.”
Luck also realized that he needed to have a blueprint in place when he went shopping for a new coach last spring, eventually landing TCU associate head coach Randy Mazey. Had Luck not had a plan for a new facility, it is highly unlikely Mazey would have left Fort Worth, Texas to take over a northeastern baseball program that had not been to an NCAA regional in 16 years.
“I told him ‘oh yeah it’s going to happen’ and ‘this will happen,’” Luck said, knowing that he was “99 percent certain” it would in fact eventually happen. “In my mind, there was absolutely no reason to try and upgrade the program without having a stadium plan in place. Any quality coach would have hesitated to accept the position without a plan for a new or completely refurbished ballpark.”
Luck has had considerable experience with high-profile sports venues dating back to his days heading up the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority. In that role, Luck oversaw the financing, development and management of a $1 billion professional sports and entertainment complex for the city that included Minute Maid Park, Reliant Stadium, the Toyota Center and the recently completed BBVA Compass Stadium.
It was during the construction of BBVA Compass Stadium when Luck was president of the Houston Dynamo that he came to fully appreciate the value of tax increment financing (TIF) for community development. A real estate TIF and a sales tax TIF were used to fund Monongalia County’s new $16.2 million baseball facility that was recently approved by the West Virginia Legislature and signed into law Tuesday evening by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin. The new stadium will reside in the University Town Centre shopping plaza next to Interstate 79.
“Without a doubt the experience of financing and building the soccer stadium in Houston allowed me to really understand how effective a TIF can be,” said Luck. “All TIFs operate under the same concept: this was a little different in that we did both a real estate and sales tax TIF. Some states don’t have sales tax TIFs; Texas doesn’t have a sales tax TIF, but West Virginia does. The key, though, was finding the right developer and we were fortunate to find such a great partner in Monview LLC.”
According to Luck, the right components all need to be in place to successfully build a new sports venue.
“You need to find the right developer, find the right development and find the right political support,” he explained. “I give a lot of credit to the three county commissioners (Bill Bartolo, Eldon Callen and Asel Kennedy, since replaced by Tom Bloom). There was a change during the process, but that didn’t seem to cause any disruption. The two guys that remained on the commission – Bartolo and Callen – really got it. They understood how important this thing could be – ballpark or no ballpark. They got the big picture of this.”
As did state Senator Bob Beach.
“Think about this … Bob filed the bill last session, not this year, but a year prior to that so this has been something Bob has been pushing for the last 13-14 months,” noted Luck.
Although there was widespread support for the bill, passing unanimously in the Senate, it hit a snag late in the legislative process when the baseball TIF bill, as it became known in the local media, was attached to a magistrate pay raise bill that was being promoted in the House of Delegates. Luck said he was confident everything would be worked out, even when the legislative session expired without a formal vote in the House for the stadium TIF bill that everyone seemed to favor.
“I talked to Tim Miley, the House Judiciary chairman, and he indicated that he was supportive of the concept and thought it made sense for Mon County because the TIF they have in Bridgeport (for the Charles Pointe development) made sense for Harrison County,” said Luck. “But he also told me that he may use (the baseball TIF) as leverage on some other legislation, which is simply how the system works. I just told him ‘you’re the judiciary chairman and it’s your call. I’m glad you support it.’ I give Tim a lot of credit for finally making it a reality.”
Mazey said he spent the final night of the legislative session in Lynchburg, Va., listening to live coverage on his iPad. His team was playing Liberty University that weekend.
“I popped my headphones on and listened to live audio from the state capital, and that was definitely a first for me,” he chuckled.
When the bill did not come up for a vote it was obviously very disappointing to West Virginia’s new coach, but once everyone took a deep breath and word began circulating that a compromise could be reached and the TIF was going to be brought up for a vote during a quick special legislative session called by the Governor, Mazey’s spirits picked back up.
“I haven’t been around for the history of the program, but I can’t believe there has been a better moment in our history that really changes the landscape of the entire baseball program like this has,” said Mazey. “I’m just glad to be a part of it.”
Mazey pointed out that WVU’s campus is surrounded by baseball programs with new or refurbished stadiums, with perhaps the nicest being Virginia’s Davenport Field. After the Cavaliers completed work on their new stadium in 2002, their program has made an immediate leap forward by winning two ACC titles and making two appearances at the College World Series since then. And since 2003, Virginia has won at least 39 games each year with seven seasons of 40 or more victories.
“I don’t think it’s really rocket science,” Mazey said. “Kids love playing in nice facilities and you can probably name 15 or 20 schools that have taken a jump when they built nice facilities. Kids just like playing in nice places and when we bring recruits on visits we can walk them through a nice facility and it makes them feel at home.”
Yet lost throughout this entire process was the incredible sacrifice the West Virginia players have been making by traveling 2 ½ hours to Charleston and Beckley to play Big 12 Conference home games in a stadium more suitable for that level of baseball. Had the new stadium not been approved, those players would have likely remained in limbo for quite some time.
“We’re all employed at West Virginia for the benefit of the student-athlete and that’s what we can’t lose sight of,” said Mazey. “What we’re doing with the stadium is for the benefit of the student-athlete first and the community second. I’m excited for our kids, and I know they are excited as well.”
Also lost to some is the fact that the baseball stadium is just a small part of what is being planned for that part of the county. Luck explains.
“A misconception was this TIF kept getting referred to as the baseball park TIF when in reality it was a much bigger deal than that,” he said. “When you look back 30 years from now, what we’ll see is just an incredible development of more than 1,400 acres with a baseball park that is nice little piece … but by no means the centerpiece of that TIF. The centerpiece will be the entire development, including a new interchange.”
That new interchange will link up the western part of Monongalia County and provide easy access to Mylan Park, according to Luck.
“Here is the way I look at it as a Morgantown resident: you’ve got I-79, which is really the umbilical cord for north central West Virginia and if you look at the three major communities – Clarksburg, Fairmont and Morgantown – all three of those communities are two or three miles off the freeway. Because of the topography that we have in this area, you can’t build much more in the respective core urban area. Morgantown, just like Clarksburg and Fairmont, runs the risk of kind of suffocating almost.
“Clarksburg has built a lot along the freeway and Bridgeport has been booming; Fairmont built that connector, which has opened up Fairmont to the freeway, and I think this development will give Mon County and Morgantown the same kind of boost because all of a sudden you’ve got a lot of property that is going to be easily accessible, including Mylan Park on the west side of the freeway. This TIF will probably be the best thing that has ever happened to Mylan Park because it will make it easy to get there for all of the events they have throughout the year.”
So, now that the bill is signed into law, what’s next?
First, there is still WVU Board of Governors approval for the land purchase and the overall project. In addition, the Higher Education Policy Committee must sign off on the construction of the facility. And the State Department of Administration’s Design/Build Board will have to approve the design and construction arrangement. In the meantime, a criteria developer has already been hired to assess what ultimately should be constructed.
“How many locker rooms do we need? How many batting cages? How many seats? How many restrooms? How many concession stands, seats, parking and all that?” Luck explained, adding that he’s not sure when ground will eventually be broken.
“I firmly believe there is no reason baseball shouldn’t be competitive. We should be in a position with our new ballpark to draw good crowds – look at the crowd that came out this past week to watch the Pitt game and witness the Governor sign the bill. And then add the economic value of bringing an affiliated minor league team here in the summertime when there really is not a whole lot to do in Morgantown,” Luck noted. "The state Legislature authorized TIFs about a decade ago with the Cabela’s project in Wheeling being the first sales tax TIF. By all accounts it really worked well. It’s a good economic development tool and I give both the county commission and state government a lot of credit for recognizing that this project made sense. They really believed in it.”
Mazey believes that when the new stadium is completed it will be transformational for baseball enthusiasts throughout the region.
“My little guy Wammer (son Weston) just started little league baseball here in Morgantown and I’ve had the pleasure of going to a couple of his practices,” said Mazey. “I’ve been very passionate about youth baseball my entire career and I want to do whatever I can to help Morgantown promote baseball in this area. This stadium is just going to help, maybe, give kids something to shoot for.”
Something really, really nice to shoot for, that’s for sure - thanks to a lot of visionaries who were willing to dream things that never were and say, Why not?
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