Fans of fast balls and home runs will be glad that Saturday is the Dayton Dragon’s home opener.
But local businesses will be cheering just as hard for the first pitch of the season to be thrown out , since they expect to see increased foot traffic and sales right off the bat.
America’s national pastime has been very good to the city of Dayton since Fifth Third Field first opened in 2000.
Some people at the time believed it was a gamble to try to put minor league baseball at the center of redevelopment efforts for downtown.
But Dayton baseball has been an absolute juggernaut, injecting about $27.6 million annually into the regional economy, according to one study.
The Dayton Dragons continue a record-breaking run of consecutive sellout games, bringing scores of people downtown who shell out money to eat, drink, shop and take in other activities.
The ballpark has been an anchor in the northeastern section of downtown, encouraging other investments like the Water Street District, which turned empty land and vacant buildings into popular new apartments, restaurants and businesses.
“I believe people enjoy living near the ballpark because of the positive impact it has and the unique experience it offers,” said Jason Woodard, principal of Woodard Development, one of the developers of Water Street.
The Dayton Dragons have a fairy tale-like streak going of 1,246 sellouts as of the end of last season, which is the record for all major and minor league teams. The streak is expected to continue during this home stand.
On average, more than 8,300 people attend each one of the Dayton Dragons home games. There are 70 home games each year, and the Dragons are one of the big reasons why downtown welcomes about 7.2 million visitors annually.
In addition to minor league baseball, Fifth Third Field hosts high school and college baseball games, business meetings, picnics, movie nights, beer festivals, charity walks and other events that bring many thousands of people downtown.
All that activity was a confidence-builder at a time when faith in downtown’s resurgence was not widespread.
Eric Deutsch, executive VP of the Dayton Dragons, came to Dayton to in the late 1990s to push for building the $23 million baseball stadium. He remembers that many community members were not sold on the idea.
Some people believed downtown wasn’t safe.
Some thought there’d be no place to park.
Some thought there would be traffic headaches.
Some thought minor league baseball couldn’t compete with the Cincinnati Reds.
Some thought minor league baseball couldn’t stop downtown from slowly dying.
Though getting baseball to Dayton took work, once it arrived, skeptics changed their tune almost instantly, after the first crack of the bat, Deutsch said.
“People kept coming back,” Deutsch said.
“And it is safe downtown. And it is easy to get in and out. And it is fun. And there are places to park. And the one-way streets aren’t cumbersome. And it’s family-friendly. And it is affordable,” Deutsch continued.
And, he said, the economic development in downtown in the last 18 years is estimated at a staggering $1.5 billion.
“In addition to being a wonderful amenity for people throughout the region to enjoy, the Dayton Dragons and Fifth Third Field have clearly been catalysts for growth and revitalization in our city, and continue to be so,” said Dayton City Manager Shelley Dickstein.
The ballpark was a key factor in Charles Simms Development’s decision to build new townhouses downtown.
The firm’s first homes opened in 2011 at Patterson Square, at First Street and Patterson Boulevard across from the ballpark. Simms is now on its sixth downtown housing project.
“With the uncertainty of the housing market downtown back then, the success of the Dragons gave us a much better comfort level,” said company President Charlie Simms. “We knew the foot traffic of the game attendees would give us great exposure to the downtown market.”
And Dragons fans don’t just spend money on peanuts and crackerjacks at the ballpark.
Many splurge on meals at local restaurants and drinks at local breweries. They might come for baseball, but stay for downtown entertainment and nightlife.
“Game days also bring a lot of people to the area who I think are spending more time before and after the games around the stadium at places like Basil’s and Lock 27,” said Woodard, referring to the restaurants in the Water Street District.
The development of Water Street around the ballpark was a strategic decision that assumed people would want to be close to some of downtown’s amenities, including baseball, the river and Riverscape, Woodard said.
When Water Street started with an office building and 215 apartments along the river, the momentum in downtown was still getting rolling, so having the ballpark nearby was very helpful given that people associate it with positive experiences, Woodard said.
The Water Street District has grown substantially, adding more housing along the river. Developers converted an old warehouse next to the stadium into 133 new loft-style apartments, some of which have views of the baseball diamond. Downtown’s first new hotel in decades is under construction across from the stadium.
In the 1990s, some people envisioned big things for downtown if it could manage to lure a minor league baseball team.
No one was more gung-ho about bringing baseball to the Gem City than Tony Capizzi, the juvenile judge and former Dayton city commissioner. He was convinced that baseball would be a game-changer for downtown redevelopment and a boon for tourism.
The impact is visible by the throngs of fans filing in for games and the new development reshaping downtown.
“It is obvious that a number of us felt a stadium could be a draw to downtown,” said Tony Capizzi, in early 2000. “I don’t think you would have seen this kind of regional support if it wasn’t downtown.”
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