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OPINION - The New Athletic Park

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU)  The weather is warming up, and thoughts are turning to baseball.

If you haven’t driven by Wausau’s Athletic Park, the new grandstand is starting to take shape. When finished, the new ballpark is going to be very, very nice.

I was in a meeting with representatives with the Wisconsin Woodchucks last month, and we talked about some of the changes to the ballpark. What’s new? First, the grandstand behind home plate is being replaced. The new structure will include wide-back seats (instead of bleachers). Behind those home plate seats will be a new press box and team store. Above it, new luxury suites.

The concept behind the suites is very well thought out. There’s an indoor seating area that overlooks the field, but there are also outdoor seats in front of the suites for guests who’d like a more traditional ballpark experience. And the suites have outdoor side patios where people can stand and watch the game, or for setting up outdoor tables for food service. This will be a very nice ‘high end’ night at the ballpark, and the facilities are reasonably priced.

My favorite part of the renovation is the new public park just outside the ballpark along the first-base line. Two homes were demolished last fall and the street that ran parallel to Athletic Park has been closed off. On game day this area will become an outdoor entranceway to the stadium, and a nice place for families to gather before going to their seats. The area can have a stage for live entertainment before the game, and is also big enough for a large outdoor tent for banquets.

Game day for the Woodchucks will be much more of an ‘event’ than before. Because of that, the team will delay building new general admission grandstands down the foul lines until 2015. (That’s been pushed back a year; it was going to start at the end of this year’s season.) The team is also considering putting up larger bleachers along the third base line, with perhaps seating for 2,000 or 3,000 people. The bleachers along the first base line would be downsized with more room for concessions.

How Athletic Park is used will change. The Woodchucks can’t get sufficient return on their $2-million investment with only 30-or-so home games a year. Their plan is to find many more uses for the ballpark. Already the Central Wisconsin Baseball Hall of Fame banquet will be in the new park. Other events will likely follow. When the third base seating is complete, the ballpark could be configured for football and soccer games or for outdoor concerts.

The renovations will be the best of everything. An aging ballpark will become an upgraded community asset. The changes will put the Woodchucks in-line with other Northwoods League teams that have newer ballparks, and will keep them in Wausau for the long-term. We’ll have an outdoor venue that has expanded uses, and better public space surrounding it. And the renovation work keeps the charm of the original place, with the intimate playing field and the original stone work outside. All of this – and the long, hard winter – are reasons why I can’t wait for the baseball season to get here.

Chris Conley

Image: An artists rendering of Athletic Park via wsau.com