Baseball study finds Gwinnett a strong market

LAWRENCEVILLE - Gwinnett County has "one of the strongest markets in the country" for a minor-league baseball team, according to a feasibility study presented to officials this month.

In the report, study author CSL International proposed a 7,000-seat stadium, which could cost $25 million to $30 million and could draw 180,000 to 215,000 patrons each year. But the study found Gwinnett's team would likely have to be independent, since representatives from the Atlanta Braves have indicated they do not support relocation of its minor-league teams.

"It's doable. This market would be the envy of almost every minor-league team," said Commissioner Bert Nasuti, who introduced the idea late last year.

On Tuesday, Nasuti was named to the county's Convention and Visitors Bureau, which funded the study and, after successfully building the Arena at Gwinnett Center, has taken on the baseball stadium proposal. Commissioner Kevin Kenerly, who served on the board for seven years, resigned to spend more time on his work and volunteer opportunities, including coaching football.

Nasuti said he's interested in other goals of the tourism board but is especially energized about the baseball plan.

"There were people who thought the arena was a boondoggle," Nasuti said, pointing to the success of the venue, which hosts the minor-league Gwinnett Gladiators hockey team. "The public across the board has supported this kind of thing. It doesn't mean we don't support police and fire."

Preston Williams, the general manager for the arena who is working on the proposal, said the study confirmed Gwinnett's potential but also confirmed the two major challenges to the proposal: the possibility of an independent league team and the issue of funding.

Most strong independent leagues are located in the Midwest and the Northeast, which would cause additional travel expenses, Williams said.

"I think it could still work," Williams said of using an independent league. "To me, that's not necessarily a bad thing. There are some success stories in similar markets."

In the report, the consultants estimated a team could generate $890,000 to $1.5 million in annual operating revenue, but Williams said the amount would probably not cover any debt needed to build a stadium. That would make a public contribution necessary.

"Everybody's trying to digest it and look at it," he said. "We've got to see if someone is going to step forward with a plan."

While commissioners and tourism board members have received the report, Nasuti said a formal discussion isn't likely to take place until September.

With a market area with 1.2 million residents living within a 15-mile radius of the proposed ballpark and with 27.4 percent of households with an annual income greater than $100,000, Nasuti described the statistics as "dream demographics."

Gwinnett's venture was compared to other facilities, in Illinois, New Jersey, Texas and Kansas.

In surveys conducted in the county, the consultants found that a minor-league team would have minimal impact on season ticket purchases at the Arena at Gwinnett Center or on county attendance at Atlanta Braves games.

While survey respondents preferred a northern Gwinnett location for the baseball park, a site has not been selected. Consultants recommended a stadium with 5,500 fixed seats with the ability to provide additional grass berm seating for up to 1,500. The stadium would also include 16 to 20 private suites, 300 to 450 club seats and 2,300 parking spaces within walking distance.

The proposal would require $25 million to $30 million, excluding land, financing or infrastructure costs and an estimated 27 acres for the park and parking.