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Thursday, January 2, 2014 - 8:00am

Prepared To Leave The City, Savannah Sand Gnats Ask For New Baseball Stadium

The Atlanta Braves have decided to leave the city of Atlanta for a new stadium in suburban Cobb County.

But they might not be the only Georgia baseball team to pull up stakes.

The minor league Savannah Sand Gnats have been grousing about their historic stadium for years.

But city officials are taking a skeptical look at their wish to be downtown.

For many people, baseball is as much a part of summer in Savannah as the vicious, biting insects that give the local team, the Sand Gnats, its name.

Radio announcer Toby Hyde called the game in September when the Gnats earned a win that clinched their position as league leaders.

"Evans catches in foul territory and the Gnats rush from the dugout!" Hyde said. "And the Gnats fly away with a two-nothing victory tonight and a South Atlantic League championship."

Ever since 1940, Savannah's minor league baseball players have caught those balls and made those runs in Grayson Stadium.

The cozy red-brick structure has an old-time baseball feel.

Seventy-year-old Pearson DeLoach polished players' shoes here as a young child.

"Some of the greatest memories that I have are of the big major league players who came through here, Mickey Mantle and the Yogi Berras," DeLoach says.

And did he meet those stars?

"Absolutely," he says.

DeLoach now works in the city government office that oversees Grayson Stadium.

And that's a big task because of the building's age.

The city has spent millions of dollars upgrading everything from parking lots to stands.

But now the team wants to move.

They say, Grayson Stadium isn't fit for modern entertainment.

Team manager John Katz is diplomatic referring to the city office.

"The folks over at Leisure Services have been a phenomenal help as we've tried to continue to elevate the level of service," Katz says. "But it also comes down to the fact that you can still only do so much. And I think it's certainly time to try to explore some options."

The team's complaints include the size of the concession area and the lack of options for technical upgrades.

The team's owners, Hardball Capital, are reportedly talking with city officials in Columbia, South Carolina.

The subtle threat is that if Savannah doesn't build a new stadium, they'll leave.

Local businessman Reed Dulany says that would be a tragedy.

"This is really more, far more than a stadium and far more than baseball," Dulany says.

Dulany is leading the team's community outreach on the stadium.

He says he's not really a baseball fan.

But he still supports the team's proposal.

"It doesn't crush me to lose the Sand Gnats," Dulany says. "What would disappoint me is the loss of the development potential."

I spoke with Dulany at the proposed stadium site, currently a tangle of weeds just east of downtown.

Later, I walked there from River Street.

That lonely, desolate walk is not for the faint of heart.

A developer bought the waterfront location for hotels, offices, condos and homes during the real estate boom of 2006.

But the development, called the Savannah River Landing, went bust during the housing-led Recession.

By that time, the city had laid down streets, utilities and a $14 million riverwalk extending the city's waterfront plaza.

City taxpayers are still paying for the expense.

Sand Gnats officials are lobbying city leaders with the promise that a new stadium will jump start the stalled development and turn it from a financial drain on the city to a boost.

Harball Capital CEO Brian Freier made such a pitch to City Council at a recent meeting.

The company also has taken City Council members to Ft. Wayne, Ind.

Officials in the Hoosier city say a minor league baseball stadium, affiliated with the company, sparked development in a once-vacant area of that city.

"We believe the development potential at the Savannah River Landing is hundreds of millions of dollars," Freier says. "If you look at what the tax increment for that would do for the City of Savannah, it far outweighs the amount of money that the city would have to put in on an annual basis to help us get a project like this going."

But with a possible price tag of $30 million, Savannah officials are skeptical.

Members of city council peppered Dulany and Freier with tough questions at a recent meeting.

"I'm not convinced Savannah is a baseball city," said Van Johnson, a member of the council.

Council members noted that many people aren't even watching the field when the Sand Gnats play.

They're there for the ambience of baseball -- any baseball -- at historic Grayson Stadium.

Mary Ellen Sprague, who represents the Grayson Stadium area on the council, compared the potential loss of the team to the 2003 bankruptcy of the Savannah Symphony.

"Did Savannah still move on without a Philharmonic? Yes. But did we like not having one? No. And we eventually have one back now," Sprague says. "Will Savannah still be here without the Sand Gnats? Yes. But will our quality of life be as good? No. I like having a minor league team here. I think we all do."

Sprague says she'll make her decision based on the potential for economic development at the Savannah River Landing.

That, most likely, will be laid out in a city-funded feasibility study.

Mike Toma, an Armstrong Atlantic State University economist, says it's completely possible that a new stadium would pay for itself by attracting new homes and businesses.

But he says the question merits further study.

And what would the alternative, losing the Sand Gnats, look like?

"Clearly that would create a gap in some individuals' entertainment portfolio," Toma says. "But I don't know that that would cause a net economic loss. Those dollars probably would just be diverted into some other form of entertainment."

And residents soon will have more entertainment options with a new city arena.

Voters last year approved $120 million for a new downtown arena as part of a sales tax referendum.

Some city council members see the arena and the stadium as competition for the city's limited resources, although Dulany and Freier contend that events at the arena would not compete with events at the proposed stadium.

Savannah officials are working through these questions and others as the city prepares to make a decision.

Hardball Capital CEO Jason Freier says that he would like an answer sooner rather than later.

"We've been asking that question now for four years," Freier says. "I think we've been patient to date but we're in a position where we will need to make a decision in the none to distant future."

The team has committed to playing the 2014 season here.

After that, the Sand Gnats' future appears up to city council.

Council member so far have agreed informally on the need for an independently-conducted feasibility study.