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Appleton hopes for a hit

Home run would mean team builds more stadium improvements

Dustin Block

If you build it they will come. If you don’t build it, they will go.

The Beloit community learned that in 2004 when the Milwaukee Brewers minor league team left the city for a new stadium in West Virginia. It’s learning that again this spring as its former minor-league team is lured back to Wisconsin by an upgraded facility in Grand Chute near Appleton.

Indoor batting cages are planned for the minor-league baseball stadium so future Milwaukee Brewers players can hone their swings there.

The Brewers requested construction of the indoor facility as part of a four-year deal in 2008 to move its Class A minor-league team, the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, back to Wisconsin, said General Manager Rob Zerjav.

The project, designed by Larson Engineering Inc., Appleton, will go out for bid in early March. It should be completed before opening day April 9.

Beloit officials, meanwhile, hope to raise millions of dollars from private investors to build a new stadium for the city’s minor-league team, the Beloit Snappers. The city has a task force on the job and it has been offered land to build the stadium. Now it’s a matter of securing money to build, a challenge during a recession, said team Chairman Dennis Conerton.

Increased attendance is what both teams want.

The Timber Rattlers hope the Brewers deal will draw more fans and lead to additional stadium improvements, Zerjav said. Other minor-league teams located near their major-league parent clubs have seen a 20 percent increase in attendance, he said.

“If that happens for us, we’ll look at additional restrooms and seating,” Zerjav said. “It depends on how this year goes. If it goes well, we may speed up the (improvements’) time frame.”

But Conerton said fans care less about the team that is playing and more about the overall experience. He said he is skeptical the Timber Rattlers will see the spike in attendance they’re expecting.

The Brewers’ Class A team played in Beloit before leaving for Charleston, W.Va., in 2004. After the Brewers left, Beloit signed a deal with the Minnesota Twins and didn’t see a drop in attendance, Conerton said.

“The fan comes for the overall experience and atmosphere,” Conerton said. “All of that overrides who’s playing, and in some cases, even who wins or loses.”

And when it comes to winning, Beloit hopes to win by learning from Appleton’s example.

Beloit has been working for years to build a new minor-league stadium in order to compete with Appleton for baseball tournaments and other events. Beloit’s field was built in 1982 and lacks the amenities of other modern fields, such as a concourse surrounding the stadium.

It also sits in the middle of a neighborhood that is difficult to reach and has little room for expansion, Conerton said.

Appleton found success when it moved its minor-league park near Highway 41. Beloit hopes to make a similar move to draw more people from southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois, he said.

“We studied the Appleton model closely,” he said. “When they built along the highway, suddenly their market increased to the north and the south.”

At stake is millions of dollars spent by visitors attending baseball tournaments. Appleton hosts the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division III baseball tournament, the state high-school baseball championship and other events, such as the Donald Driver Charity Softball Game. The college tournament alone brought in $313,000 to the Fox Cities in 2008, according to information from the Fox Cities Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The stadium “brings a lot to our quality of life,” said Lynn Peters, executive director of the visitors bureau, which helped pay for the Appleton stadium in 2005. “It’s a great source of local entertainment.”

The Fox Cities Sports Authority, which owns the stadium, has updated the facility five times since opening it 14 years ago, said Mike Reese, vice president of the nonprofit organization. Along with the indoor batting cage, the sports authority is installing a digital scoreboard comparable to the one in Miller Park, Reese said.

Any future improvements will depend on how well the Timber Rattlers, who manage all events at the stadium, fare in attracting fans and events, he said.

“We work together very closely in considering projects that are in the long-term best interest of the team and obviously the stadium,” Reese said.

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