May 23, 2023

Spartanburg gets a minor league baseball team, plans downtown stadium

SPARTANBURG — Minor league baseball will return to Spartanburg for the first time in three decades when a Texas Rangers Class A affiliate moves into a new stadium to be built downtown next to the A.C. Hotel.

The Down East Wood Ducks, currently based in Kinston, N.C., will relocate to Spartanburg and could start playing as early as the 2025 season, according to a news release shared with The Post and Courier.

The Rangers recently sold the team to Diamond Baseball Holdings, one of the largest owners of minor-league teams. The company owns another team in South Carolina, the Augusta GreenJackets, which plays in North Augusta. There’s no word whether the Wood Ducks will get a new name.

The team is moving to Spartanburg thanks to a group of public and private entities, including the city and county of Spartanburg, OneSpartanburg Inc., The Johnson Group, the state of South Carolina and Diamond Baseball Holdings.

In the last three years the city has accumulated $34 million in state earmarks for downtown development while staying reticent on the details. That money will help fund infrastructure for a $250 million-plus project that includes the baseball stadium, multi-family housing, office space and entertainment options.

“Additional affordable family entertainment coupled with needed white collar office space and other world class amenities will ensure downtown Spartanburg is an increasingly impactful economic engine for this region,” said Spartanburg Mayor Jerome Rice in a news release.

General contractor Robins and Morton will build the 3,500-seat stadium with a 5,000-square-foot event room on a 16-acre parcel owned by The Johnson Group, which is based in Spartanburg and will retain ownership of the land. The city will own the stadium and lease it to Diamond Baseball Holdings. The stadium will also serve as a year-round event venue.

While The Johnson Group will develop the stadium, it’s unclear how much public money will go into the project and how much money the stadium itself will cost. Minor league stadiums built in recent years have cost anywhere from under $40 million to more than $100 million.

The Johnson Group CEO Geordy Johnson said public dollars would fund the city-owned ballpark and private funds would pay for the office, housing and entertainment aspects. City officials couldn’t immediately provide a breakdown of public spending.

“We’re still in the early stages with all of those conversations,” Rice said. “Now that it’s finally a go, we can sit down at the table and work out some of the details.”

City and county officials have good reason to believe the project will be a boon to downtown and attract white collar jobs.

The strategy worked for Greenville 13 years ago when the city welcomed the Boston Red Sox-affiliated Greenville Drive. The team owners built the stadium and worked with private investors to develop the adjacent condos and restaurants.

Greenville Mayor Knox White said Fluor Field gets 90 percent of the credit for revitalizing Greenville’s West End, which used to be a high-crime area filled with vacant lots.

“We chose the exact right location in an area that needed redevelopment and it’s been catalytic,” White said. “Today it’s one the most vibrant areas of downtown.”

The key to success in Greenville was to combine the stadium with condos and restaurants, White said. That created a steady supply of foot traffic plus an influx during events. The number of people made the area attractive to other business owners and apartment builders who have reshaped the area.

That strategy is similar to Spartanburg’s plan.

“I hope it’s a turning point for Spartanburg’s downtown,” White said. “I think it probably will be.”

Spartanburg is stacked with baseball history.

Duncan Park, built in 1926, was home to the Negro League’s Spartanburg Sluggers until the mid 1950s and played host to a Philadelphia Phillies minor league affiliate, the Spartanburg Phillies from 1963 to 1980 and from 1986 to 1994. Stadium seats from the Phillies era can still be found on the deck at the Fr8 Yard downtown.

Major League Baseball teams like the New York Yankees also played exhibition games there in the old days. Through the years, Hank Aaron, Jackie Robinson and Satchel Paige all dug their cleats into Duncan Park dirt.

But Hub City’s history with America’s pastime ended when the Phillies left. The Spartanburgers, a collegiate summer team in the Coastal Plain League, spent one season at Duncan Park in 2021 but suspended play the next year due to pandemic-related financial problems.

Johnson grew up watching the Phillies at Duncan Park and said he was glad to help bring the minor league back to his hometown.

“This collective effort will have a transformative impact on Spartanburg — supporting our city’s current growth, drawing families into the heart of downtown, continuing our rich history of professional baseball and serving as a hub for entertainment and broader economic activity throughout our area for years to come,” he added in the news release.

The Down East Wood Ducks play in the Carolina League along with four South Carolina-based teams — the Augusta GreenJackets, Columbia Fireflies, Myrtle Beach Pelicans and Charleston RiverDogs. The Greenville Drive play in the South Atlantic League.