By Robert Kalesse
Special to Delaware Business Times
When ownership of the Wilmington Blue Rocks changed hands for the first time in team history in December of last year, new owners Clark Minker and Dave Heller announced that a makeover to Frawley Stadium would be first on their to-do list heading into 2016. With the 2015 season nearing completion in September, those dreams of improving the old ballpark are about to become reality.
Heller, who along with Minker, purchased the Class-A ball club from 11 partners, which included Minker, will begin the makeover process this fall by replacing all the blue seats in the lower bowl seating of Frawley Stadium. Heller said that most stadium seats have a shelf life of 10-12 years, while Frawley’s seats are the originals that were installed nearly 25 years ago.
“If you look at the seats, especially from the behind the dugout and the field, you can see how weathered they look,” said Heller on a recent tour of Frawley Stadium. “We want to make over the entire look of the main seating area, so that when fans arrive in 2016, those changes are immediately noticeable and significant.”
Heller said that the new seating plans also call for an upgrade to the suite level, loge boxes for large groups to hang out in and watch the game, and even seating areas with high-top tables, for dining while the Blue Rocks play their Carolina League games.
“Sure, we want to increase seating capacity, but we also want to offer a variety of seating options so each fan can have their own experience at the game,” Heller said. Although seating changes might not be the most exciting makeover, Heller has more grandiose plans that would likely reinvent Frawley Stadium, which currently offers a capacity of 6,600, as fans know it.
“I want to build a 360-degree concourse that connects the third base and first base sides of the stadium,” said Heller. “And I want to have a beer garden in left field, and an area where kids can play in a bouncy house in right field, and maybe a grass berm where families can hang out in the sun during games.”
Heller also envisions a rail system and train around the top of Frawley Stadium, offering fans rides for $5 per game, making stops at first base, third base, left field and right field. As the Baltimore native said, “Wilmington is partially known for their Amtrak station, right? I think we should celebrate that.”
As president and CEO of Main Street Baseball, Heller brings a proven resume of resurrecting minor league ball clubs, both financially and in terms of fan experience. As owner of the Quad Cities River Bandits, he brought in a new outfield bar, picnic area, playground, portable food carts, and a 105-foot tall Ferris wheel, the first in Minor League Baseball history.
Minker, whose father, Matt, originally helped bring the Blue Rocks franchise to Wilmington in 1993, calls Heller “an extremely successful owner and operator, and one of the best Minor League baseball minds in the country,” praising Heller’s boundless energy and ideas as a reason for great excitement for Blue Rocks fans.
While fans and most neighboring business owners like the Chase Center on the Riverfront and the new Westin Hotel are, in fact, excited at the prospect of more foot traffic in the area, some are concerned about current car traffic in the area.
Venu Gadamaddi, owner of Veritas Wine & Spirits on Justison Street along the Riverfront, praised the Blue Rocks as visionaries that led the Riverfront renaissance, but does worry about traffic issues on game nights. With only one artery leading in and out of Frawley, traffic piles up pretty quickly.
“The Blue Rocks are awesome and they add so much value to the Riverfront, but they need to work with the city to find a way to help their patrons enjoy a convenient entry and exit on game day,” said Gadamaddi, who has run his neighboring business at the Riverfront for seven years.
Heller realizes the need for “easier ingress and egress,” and has ideas on how to counter the flow of traffic both before and after games. While a 495 off-ramp had been discussed years ago, Heller said the onus might fall on himself and Minker first.
“I don’t know what the likelihood of getting money to build an off-ramp is; I’m a baseball team owner, not a politician,” said Heller. “But I know we can do things here at the ballpark, especially with post-game concerts and events, to keep more people at the park longer and hopefully offset some of that traffic.”
Heller also discussed the option of teaming up with other business owners to “keep the party on the Riverfront” as long as possible. Partnerships with the new Riverwalk Mini Golf course located behind the Delaware Children’s Museum, and other local restaurants and businesses, are at the top of his ideas list.
“We can offer families, and especially the kids, a way to come down and hang out for an afternoon and evening of fun,” said Heller. “I really think that if we all work together, this can be a great attraction for people to visit from miles around.”
Heller said that the riverfront and Wilmington’s location is one of the primary reasons he entered the partnership with Minker, taking ownership of his fourth minor league team. As a Baltimore native, Heller still feels like the Mid-Atlantic region is his home.
“Wilmington is very unique in that way, in that we serve people from all over the east coast and can be a hub of entertainment, shopping, you name it,” said Heller. “Most teams draw from one city or group of suburbs, but we have a four-state opportunity here, where we can bring so many people to Delaware.”
After winning the first half title with a 38-32 record, the Blue Rocks are positioned to feature playoff baseball at Frawley Stadium in September. While Heller is excited at the prospect of his team making the postseason in his first season as part-owner, he insists that attendance is more important than wins.
“Of course we want a great product on the field, but we have no control over that; the moves made on the field are all up to the Kansas City Royals,” said Heller. “We want to control what we can, and that’s the experience the fans get here at the ballpark, and as an extension, on the Wilmington Riverfront as a whole. It’s an ongoing evolution, but we are really looking forward to all the work we can do here to continue to grow this great city.”
The Blue Rocks have approximately 15 home games in August and early September before hosting the championship game against the second-half Carolina League champs (TBD) at 6:35 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 10. Tickets are priced between $6.50 and $13, and can be purchased at www.bluerocks.com.