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Winning strategy sought

LAWRENCEVILLE - To know whether minor-league sports can be a success in the suburbs, look no further than the Gwinnett Gladiators.

Not only does it lead its league in attendance, but it's become a fixture in the community, president and partial owner Steve Chapman said. And that's in a sport that few Southerners had experienced a few years ago.

"What this comes down to is family entertainment," Chapman said. "If you've got a good product, then there's ample room for growth in the north Atlanta market."

That's why the Gladiators owners are one of several groups interested in bringing minor-league baseball to Gwinnett. Commissioner Bert Nasuti requested a feasibility study into the concept last week.

But the concept remains riddled with questions.

The team, location, size, cost and players have not been determined, and officials said it could be at least a year before all the questions are answered and construction even begins.

"It's a great and wonderful thing if the community is behind it," said Scott Morris, director of economic development for the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce. "It's how you do it that matters."

Support

Morris has worked on other sports-related ventures, including the building of a stadium for a minor-league Braves franchise in Rome several years ago, and he believes a franchise would work in Gwinnett.

"It's definitely worth considering," he said. "For a lot of people it put Rome on the map. ... We're much bigger than a lot of places where minor-league baseball is played."

The new model for building stadiums, he said, is to create an entire commercial center around it, which can either renovate a downtown or be built in an emerging area.

Morris said there would likely have to be some sort of public investment, such as a donation of land or government-funded financing. In Rome, residents agreed to a one-cent sales tax to pay for the $18 million stadium.

Community support is important, so the details such as ticket prices and number of suites is vital.

Morris said it took a year to work out the details on the Rome stadium, and it could take the same amount of time here. That's a year before construction even begins.

Compared to a minor-league baseball team, the Gladiators had it easy, he said.

The team was a perfect match for the $80 million Arena at Gwinnett Center, a venue that also features concerts, conventions and, at the time, arena football to support the operations of the facility.

A minor-league baseball team would be the main, if not only, support for a stadium, Morris pointed out.

"There's a big portion of the year where you aren't doing anything there," he said.

Team comes first

The operations, though, would likely be handled solely by the team, he said.

Because of franchise laws, the Atlanta Braves could locate a franchise in Gwinnett, but no other major-league team could plant a franchise in the area without permission from the Braves. An independent team would not need authorization.

A message left with a Braves spokesperson was not returned.

"There are a lot of people out there that can make it happen," Morris said, adding that many former Braves players are active in the community and have expressed interest in starting a franchise. "It's a community asset but at the end of the day, it's a business as well."

But Morris said the county needed to get a team on board before building a stadium.

"It's not as simple as build it and they will come," he said. "It's not like building a spec industrial building."

For one thing, the size of the stadium depends on which level of minor-league baseball the team will be. An A team needs about 4,000 seats, while an AA team needs twice that much, he said.

"Every model out there is completely different," Morris said. "The realities are around what kind of thing you want."

Morris said the idea is great for tourism, especially in bringing people in from the region, such as Hall County.

A baseball stadium was one item listed in Partnership Gwinnett, an economic plan for the future of the county, he said.

And Chapman agrees that it can be done. In fact, he and his partners are considering working on the venture themselves.

"This area's growing more and more," he said, referring to the population nearing 750,000. "When you get this size of a population with disposable incomes ... there is enough interest that this could be very successful."

Producing stars

Baseball is at the center of Gwinnett's recreational mecca.

The county produced major-leaguers Jeff Francoeur and Brian McCann, now playing with the Braves, the Yankees' Nick Green, the Royals' Jeff Keppinger and the Angels' Jason Bulger. Other local stars are playing in the minors.

County Administrator Jock Connell pointed out that baseball is now an international favorite, which could match well with the county's growing diversity.

But the Gladiators proved that any sport can find a home in Gwinnett.

"There are a number of ways it could work," Chapman said. "This arena has been extraordinarily successful because it was done correctly. Baseball needs to be done the same way.

"The most important thing is to get it done right. It will be something the citizens will be proud of."