Northwest Arkansas Naturals to Reach $322M over 20 Years

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Perry Webb knows how to eat an elephant.

One bite at a time, said the president of the Springdale Chamber of Commerce, whose organization was instrumental in luring minor league baseball to the city and Northwest Arkansas.

The pachyderm is a metaphor for Springdale’s image as an also-ran in the area’s growth boom after losing its biggest taxpayer – Sam’s Club – to Fayetteville and watching new restaurants and retailers continue to choose Benton County.

The first bite, and it is a big one, is the $33 million, 7,500-seat Arvest Ballpark set for a first home game of the Northwest Arkansas Naturals on April 10. But even now, with construction speeding along in a city that has had some well-publicized infrastructure problems in the past, some still wonder if Springdale’s eyes were bigger than its stomach.

The money invested by the Springdale Chamber on the referendum to approve a $50 million bond issue – which averaged out to around $10,000 for each of the 13 decisive votes it passed by in 2006 – was well spent, Webb said.

Combining the $44 million impact from the ballpark construction with the Chamber-commissioned research yields a total economic boost over the course of the Naturals’ 20-year lease with Springdale of $322 million.

Webb is eager to point out the estimated $278 million impact from Naturals baseball is very conservative and does not take into account the potential revenue from future development on the acres of pasture land around Arvest Ballpark such as restaurants, retailers or an arena.

A master plan for the area is in the works, Webb said, and Springdale must be well positioned when a “destination” retailer such as Cabela’s or Bass Pro Shops comes calling.

“We can sit back and cry about it all going [to Benton County],” Webb said. “We can complain about the lack of restaurants.

“We got leapfrogged, but here’s what we know: We know 20 years in the future there’s not going to be another mall developed on top of the hill in Fayetteville. We know there won’t be another mall developed in Rogers or Bentonville.

“When the next big wave of retailers come in, we know where they are going to go.”

Next Generation

The buzz around the Naturals and their state-of-the-art stadium shows Springdale has altered the playing field.

“We have changed the horizon,” Webb said. “We’ve done a good job of lining up the dominoes and the first will fall the night we open the ballpark. People are now seeing the vision.

“Those that drive development are coming to us saying, ‘Tell us what you’re doing out here. We’re interested.’ When you start to get that, you know you’re on the mark.”

Webb said the next phase of Springdale’s push is to land an arena near Arvest Ballpark and secure funding to add an interchange with Interstate 540 and the new Southern Corridor to be known as the Don Tyson Parkway.

However, unlike a bond referendum put to the city, those projects will require the assistance of the state legislature because Webb said taking another tax proposal to the voters for an arena projected to cost $50 million to $75 million was “out of the question.”

Projected profitability from an arena would cover operating costs, Webb said, but then even with a private developer as a partner, the gap in debt service for construction is around $30 million.

He anticipates a package of legislation being introduced in the 2009 session to create a framework for the state to help cities secure revenue bonds based on the new sales tax dollars a project like an arena would generate.

Webb said the state is expected to receive about $338,000 annually in new tax dollars from Arvest Ballpark and it would make sense for the state to help cities construct projects that grow tax coffers.

“Some percent of something is better than 100 percent of nothing,” Webb said. “The state can invest in development and get a return on the back end. It’s something that’s in use around the country, not something we’ve invented and it could be used statewide.”

A multi-use arena in Northwest Arkansas has been a bit of a white whale in recent years. After much ado, a proposed project in Benton County has fallen through and the county’s “dry” status on alcohol will continue to be a nonstarter when it comes to consideration as a location.

With all the land around the ballpark owned by well-known Springdale residents with names like Tyson and George and Shaw, the city has a competitive advantage in preparing for the “next generation” of growth.

“Everyone is pulling in the same direction, so we know what’s going to happen,” he said.

Delivering on Hype

Now that Springdale has most folks’ attention, it has to deliver.

Minor league baseball is all about entertainment, and the fan experience at Arvest Ballpark is expected to come through in a major league way thanks to architects HOK Sport Inc.

HOK has designed or renovated 20 of the 30 major league ballparks, including the $700 million home of the Washington Nationals, which opens this year, and the $1.3 billion new Yankee Stadium that will open in 2009.

The architects at HOK implemented and improved some of the best features of its other projects, such as enhanced curvature of the seating bowl that more naturally orients the fan toward the action. A “party deck” in left field and a “drink rail” in right field will be gathering places for friends who may not have seats together.

Twenty of the 25 luxury suites have been leased with a value of $175,000 each over the course of a five-year contract. Two will be held back for nightly rentals at a $1,000 a pop with 20 tickets and a $250 food credit from the suite menu included.

Around 25 of the 140 available nights on the 70-game home schedule have been booked so far and general manager Eric Edelstein has taken care to avoid conflicts with the University of Arkansas baseball team that routinely draws 7,000 to 9,000 fans at Baum Stadium.

Only two weekend series in May will compete for attention with Arkansas home dates against Alabama and South Carolina.

Frank Novak of the Naturals’ media department said around 2,000 season tickets have been sold and the 17-game multi-packs that include opening day are the “overwhelming” choice so far. Single game tickets for $6 to $12 go on sale March 8.

Martin DiNitto of HOK said the suites, with full-length sliding glass doors that can be completely opened, as well as individual bathrooms in each, are features not even some major league luxury boxes can boast.

A 2,000-SF stage in the outfield can be used for concerts or pregame activities and the concourse and building layout were designed with humid summers in mind.

Concourses were widened and some buildings were separated to increase airflow through the shaded breezeways. Fans can watch the game from nearly any vantage point as they walk around the ballpark and even when they turn their back to order a hot dog, a flat screen monitor in the concession stand will keep them in the action.

Every Friday game will feature a fireworks display and Sundays are geared toward families. No alcohol will be sold at Sunday games and kids will be able to run the bases.

DiNitto said another feature of the ballpark that will be less obvious was accidentally discovered but an appropriate nod to Springdale’s main industry.

In overhead views of the park, they realized the seating bowl began to resemble an egg, leading the architects to actually study the geometry of it and incorporate it into the final layout.

Even as it moves forward with its image makeover as the home of the Naturals, it’s difficult to imagine Springdale not being known first for poultry even if it has pulled the plug on Featherfest.

Webb is certain Springdale will have a different kind of reputation in the future thanks to the “blank slate” at the “crossroads” of Northwest Arkansas.

“In 20 years,” Webb predicts, “people are going to say, ‘remember when Springdale didn’t have any retail?’ and they’ll laugh about it.”