Idea from left field turns into big hit
Five years after the city of Butler bet big money on historic Pullman Park, the Butler BlueSox will play their 100th game there Thursday night.
The 1,500-seat park — where legends such as Lou Gehrig and Josh Gibson played in exhibition games — has been home to the BlueSox, a summer team made up of college baseball players looking to impress Major League Baseball scouts, since 2009.
“It’s a great asset to the community,” said Butler Mayor Maggie Stock. “Everybody knows everybody in the park.”
When the Butler Redevelopment Authority, which owns the park, closed it in 2005, it did so with the hope that $5 million in renovations would land an anchor tenant — it did, the BlueSox — and spur development around the ballpark — it hasn’t.
“To supplement the baseball park, maybe there’s an ice skating rink or something else, but the very first piece that drives the plan has to be successful. The park is successful. If the economy is fine, then you move forward and take your chances,” said Perry O’Malley, head of the Butler County Redevelopment and Housing authorities.
More than 17,500 people turned out for the team’s 30-game season last summer, and with high schools and adult leagues also renting out the park, it will host more than 200 games this year, according to stadium officials.
“It’s a great baseball park,” said BlueSox infielder Elliott Caldwell, 19, a sophomore at Winthrop University in South Carolina and an all-star in the Prospect League. “There are great crowds here.”
There are also new bleachers, new artificial turf, new luxury suites and a quality on-field product — the BlueSox were 27-15 entering Thursday’s game against the West Virginia Miners. Community members even put up players in their homes at no charge.
Financially, the park is like a team that wins as many as it loses.
“We’re to the point where we’re just about beyond breaking even,” O’Malley said. “We have been steadily improving.”
The redevelopment authority owns the ballpark — named for the former railcar company that operated a plant in Butler — and the city’s stadium authority runs it.
The redevelopment authority also owns a 40 percent stake in the BlueSox. The 60 percent majority is made up of five local owners, including Butler County native and former major league pitcher Matt Clement.
Of the $5 million in renovation costs, according to O’Malley, the state kicked in a $2 million grant and the county’s tourism bureau another $100,000.
After about $2 million in tax increment financing, O’Malley said, the city’s Redevelopment Authority took out a $1.75 million mortgage for the difference. Tax increment financing uses future tax revenue to pay for the improvements.
O’Malley said the park initially struggled financially because it opened in summer 2008, in the middle of a recession. Working with local bankers, O’Malley said, the group was able to defer some payments in winter months without penalty, and now has refinanced the debt, going from a 20-year to 30-year mortgage.
William Wink Robinson, a Butler attorney and one of the five local owners, said the group pays the redevelopment authority $9,000 for a 30-game season, and $1,500 to operate the souvenir store. Several fireworks nights are usually sellouts, Robinson said, and crowds have remained steady through the year.
“We’re not losing money, (but) we can’t retire on this,” Robinson said. “We’re staying afloat. We’re spending a lot in promotions and merchandise, and putting it back into the product.”
Bill Vidonic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5621 or firstname.lastname@example.org.