First glimpse
Gwinnett's new minor league ballpark taking shape

LAWRENCEVILLE - Heading along Buford Drive, it's still easy to question whether Gwinnett's new minor league ballpark will really be ready by April.

Looks, especially from afar, can be deceiving, however.

A state-of-the-art stadium for the Gwinnett Braves is indeed taking shape. You just can't see as you drive by much of what is already done.

"I went by a couple days ago, but I couldn't get in to really see very much," Gwinnett Braves general manager Bruce Baldwin said at midweek. "I know that they've made a lot of progress, though."

Once inside the wire fence that protects the 12-acre work site, you can see just how much progress.

Foundation work is complete and warehouse-style building on the third-base side of the sunken seating bowl is starting to rise. Concrete has begun to be poured and, with the dugouts already placed, it is easy to visualize the playing field.

The laying of sod won't take place until March, but that will be one of the finishing touches before the April 17 home opener against Norfolk - just less than seven months away.

The Class AAA stadium project, which has grown in price from the original estimate of $40 million to $59 million, is on schedule, if not a little ahead, despite construction having to start while final plans were still being drawn.

"The project continues to track on schedule," said Len Moser, vice president of national sports for Barton Malow, the construction management company for the stadium.

"In Barton Malow's 84 years, we have never opened a sports facility late. We always have opening night in mind and work towards that target every day."

Barton Malow, headquartered in Southfield, Mich., has an Atlanta-area office, as does the architectural firm, Dallas-based HKS. That has helped expedite the project, which didn't have its official groundbreaking until June.

"Given the condensed schedule, the only viable delivery option was design-build," said Philip G. Roy, vice president, southern region for Barton Malow. "This requires Barton Malow, HKS, Gwinnett County and the Braves to all buy in to the goals of the project from the start and work collaboratively throughout the duration of the project.

"It's an illustration of true teamwork," he added, "and only fitting that it is being done by a local team for a local team."

It turns out that the final price tag shouldn't have been so much of a shock, either, although it is nearly 50 percent higher than what was talked about when it was announced in January that Atlanta was moving its Class AAA team from Richmond, Va., to Gwinnett County.

The International League's other new ballpark for 2009 cost just a little less. The stadium in Columbus, Ohio, is a $55-million project. The stadium for the new Class AAA Pacific Coast League team in Reno, Nev., is budgeted for $50 million.

The Gwinnett stadium was always expected to be more elaborate than either and those stadiums didn't have as tight a turnaround time.

Crews have been working from dawn to dusk up to six days a week on the Gwinnett ballpark, with the site a bustle of activity. More than 200 workers are toiling away, and the work force will increase to 400 at the peak of construction late this fall before tapering off.

Barton Malow is used to quick stadium turnarounds. The ballpark in State College, Pa., built for a Class A New York-Penn League team and Penn State University was finished in 101/2 months.

Little of the Gwinnett ballpark is visible from Buford Drive because the playing field will be 18 to 20 feet below ground level, with 22-24 rows of seats rising to the concourse from foul pole to foul pole.

The only seating above that will be the suites that make up the top floor of two brick buildings, one on the third-base side and the other by first base. A third structure, behind home plate, will include the press box.

As work on the buildings progresses, the stadium will be more visible from Buford Drive. The last of the three structures is expected to be topped out by early December.

A canopy, extending from third base to first base, will cover the last 5 to 6 rows of the seating bowl. Concrete work for the bowl will be completed in October, and it will take 45 to 50 days to install the seats.

The stadium will have 7,627 seats, plus lawn space for about 2,500 on the right-field bank. Capacity is listed as 10,127.

Parking will surround the ballpark, with most fans entering the stadium through a wide plaza behind home plate. A walkway will circle the stadium.

The warehouse-like building on the third-base side, already taking shape, will be the most visible from Buford Drive, which runs behind left field and is the main entry point for stadium parking.

Forrest Brewer, general superintendent for the construction project, came to Atlanta 20 years ago to work on the Georgia Dome. This is his 18th stadium, four of them minor league ballparks.

This one holds a special charm for him, though.

"With the brick and the windows, it's going to look like Fenway Park from Yawkee Way," Brewer, a Bostonian, said of most fans' first view of the stadium.

The Gwinnett outfield, however, will have the same field dimensions as Turner Field rather than Fenway. Rainouts should be minimal because of an elaborate drainage system.

There will be one noticeable difference from the Atlanta major league ballpark.

The Gwinnett Braves' home dugout will be on the third-base side rather than near first base. That gives the Braves access to the larger clubhouse and training facility on the bottom floor of the third-base building.

Both teams will have two underground batting cages, a real plus for a minor league team. A lack of up-to-date conveniences for players was one of the many problems the Braves had with the ballpark in Richmond that they are leaving.

There will also be plenty of amenities for fans, especially the ones willing to pay top dollar.

Similar to between the dugouts at Turner Field, there will be four rows of special field-level seats that have access to a private dining area. A private elevator will connect the upper suites with the field suites.

There will be 264 seats in the field section and 22 to 24 suites upstairs. All of the suites have been spoken for.

More than half the regular grandstand seats have also been gobbled up. The Gwinnett Braves have commitments for more than 4,000 season tickets.

Many families with smaller children will probably prefer to buy the lawn seats on the slope behind the right-field field. It will be adjacent to a large play area.

The scoreboard, complete with a video screen, will be in right-center field. A restaurant off Buford Drive will look down on the field from behind the left-field wall.

The sun will set almost directly behind home plate, but the pressbox and roof line will protect fielders from having it shine in their eyes as it gets low.

The quality of the field lights is also important at a minor league stadium. There will be eight light standards, four in the outfield. They are scheduled to be installed around Thanksgiving.

A lot of people will be giving thanks when the project is completed in April.

"I can't wait for opening night," said Brewer, the general superintendent for Barton Malow.

Despite the stadium's progress, a lot of work still has to be done before it is time to play ball.