By Kenric Ward | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau
RICHMOND, Va. — The Flying Squirrels open their sixth season at The Diamond on Thursday night. Fans of the San Francisco Giants’ Double-A franchise will be treated to 2,000 new comfortable seats, a revamped Family Entertainment Zone and an expanded party deck.
The club spent nearly $200,000 on upgrades during the off-season, bringing its investment to more than $2.5 million since the Giants moved into the northside stadium.
Though the Squirrels led the Eastern League in attendance last year (418,147), The Diamond gets little respect from Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones. For years, Jones has touted plans to build a ballpark downtown.
The Squirrels would happily take a flying leap if the city bankrolls the project. But the City Council has balked, so Jones’ field of dreams remains unrealized.
A move to Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom district, the historic site of an antebellum slave market, hasn’t played well with preservationists. Nor has it been a hit with taxpayers concerned over vague cost estimates and guaranteed traffic gridlock.
The Diamond has no such baggage. Adjacent to the Washington Redskins’ training facility and a professional soccer complex, the stadium is easily accessible from the suburbs and downtown.
Since occupying the ballpark vacated by the Atlanta Braves’ Triple-A franchise, the Giants have paid the city $150,000 a year to lease The Diamond.
Drawing a league-leading average of 6,336 paying spectators per game, the Squirrels have room to grow at The Diamond. The stadium seats almost 10,000, and the team’s relentless promotional efforts are expanding the fan base.
“A lot of credit goes to Lou DiBella and his ownership group for realizing the importance of taking care of our customers and continuing to invest in our operation,” Chuck Domino, chief executive manager, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch last month.
Unlike other professional teams that threaten to leave if their cities do not fund new and fancier stadia, the Giants — the only West Coast team with an Eastern League farm club — are not making any public ultimatums.
“As long as we are operating at The Diamond our fans deserve for us to give them new and improved experiences,” said Todd Parnell, the Squirrels’ vice president and chief operating officer.
Noting that the 30-year-old Diamond is structurally sound and integral to the northside neighborhood, a civic group has formed to counter downtown developers who are angling to parlay profits from a publicly funded stadium at Shockoe.
“I know of no reason why (The Diamond) would not last 100 years or more. It’s got a lot of life left in it,” said Thomas Hanson, the stadium’s structural engineer.
Chew on that, Mayor Jones.
Kenric Ward is a national reporter for Watchdog.org and chief of the Virginia Bureau. Contact him at (571) 319-9824. @Kenricward