If you want to use baseball parlance to describe future renovations of Coca-Cola Field, you might say the Buffalo Bisons are in the top of the first inning. But they have a complete game in their plans.
The team announced Friday night that it is embarking on a multiyear, multimillion-dollar renovation plan of the downtown ballpark, with Phase I consisting of the installation of 3,700 new seats in the special reserved sections from dugout to dugout.
The new green seats from Section 113 on the third-base side to Section 114 on the first-base side will be 22 inches wide, an increase of 3 inches from the current red seats that date to the park’s 1988 opening.
The project will begin the day after the team’s International League season ends, be it in the regular season or playoffs, and will take two to three months. The city is footing the $758,000 bill.
Jonathan A. Dandes, president of Rich Baseball Operations, said the team hopes to unveil a master plan of changes for the ballpark in the next couple of months. Populous, the Kansas City-based firm that built the park from 1986-88, is currently finalizing its recommendations.
Dandes said the team’s timetable is for the entire project to last two to four years. The team has not specified its wish list, but Dandes confirmed that one item will be replacing all of the roughly 17,000-plus seats in the ballpark, which has a capacity of 18,025 when party areas are included. Just that item alone could approach $4 million.
“It’s not only just the seats. It’s everywhere else in the ballpark,” Dandes said during a news conference in a stadium party area prior to the Bisons’ game against Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. “Everything is on the table, including a retractable roof over the party deck to a renovation of our suites to dugout suites, concession stands and fan amenities.”
Many of the ballpark’s trademark red seats, which date to its opening in 1988, have faded and weathered over time. Many of the springs to the seats are broken, and replacement parts are difficult to find.
Mayor Byron W. Brown said the city plans to make continued contributions to help fund future phases.
“We absolutely see Coca-Cola Field as critical to the expansion we’re seeing in downtown Buffalo, the investment we’re seeing in downtown Buffalo,” Brown said, referring to the upcoming opening of HarborCenter and the continued development at Canalside. “People have made substantial investments because of facilities like this one. This is an attractive amenity to have in downtown Buffalo.”
Most stadiums need renovations after about 10 to 15 seasons and continued work in years 20 and beyond. The Rochester Red Wings, for instance, are awaiting word on a proposed $7.5 million project that would pay for sweeping changes at Frontier Field, which opened in 1997.
The Bisons have already invested $23 million in their park since it has opened and did not specify how much they expect this project to cost. But they will be looking for assistance from Albany.
“I certainly hope that when we make that ‘ask’ our state delegation will step up and assist us in that project,” Dandes said. “The state was a major piece of funding in the original project, and I hope that will continue.”
Dandes said the team’s number of seats will eventually drop but that capacity will be close to the current number when party areas are completed.
The team has studied ways to reduce seating capacity and increase ticket demand for the last couple of years to bring the facility in line with Triple-A stadiums around the country. Coca-Cola Field has been baseball’s largest minor-league park since it opened in 1988 with a capacity of 19,500.
Only three other parks in the 14-team IL are even over 12,000 – Indianapolis’ Victory Field (14,230), Louisville’s Slugger Field (13,131) and Harbor Park in Norfolk, Va. (12,067). The four most recent ballparks built in the league since 2009 all have capacities around 10,000.
The Bisons expanded their park to 21,050 with a bleacher expansion in 1991, and the park stayed in that configuration through the 2003 season. The bleachers were demolished in 2004 and replaced with a multi-tiered party deck in right field, reducing the capacity to its current figure. The team’s tickets-sold count was over 1 million for the first six seasons and has now settled in the 500,000-600,000 range. The Bisons are sixth in the attendance in their league this season and once again figure to be in the top 10 across the minors.
A smaller capacity would impact the team on annual big-draw events like School Kids Day, Star Wars Night and the July 3 Independence Eve celebration with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.
But it would produce ticket demand for most of the 72 home dates that does not currently exist.
Reducing capacity has become a tool in the major leagues as well. The Colorado Rockies took out acres in seats in the upper deck of Coors Field this season and replaced them with party areas, and the Cleveland Indians announced a similar project last week that will do likewise at 20-year-old Progressive Field