Last Updated: Apr 27th, 2015 - 11:04:56

Baseball a hit for drawing tourism dollars
By James Peacemaker, Jr. Managing Editor
Mar 19, 2014, 13:20

JAMES PEACEMAKER JR./HOPEWELL NEWS/NEWS-PATRIOT Baseball has been played at the site now known as Shepherd Stadium since at least the 1920s.

COLONIAL HEIGHTS — The baseball players took the time to sign autographs for their young adoring fans. It wasn’t the major leagues, or even the minor leagues, but the kids were thrilled to hear the crack of the bats and the chance to snag a foul ball at Shepherd Stadium.

At the end of February and the beginning of March, six college baseball teams from the northeast came to Colonial Heights and Dinwiddie to play a few early games in a warmer climate. They included The College of St. Rose Golden Knights, the Post University Eagles, the West Chester University Golden Rams, the Wilmington University Wildcats, the Mercyhurst University Lakers, and the Mansfield University Mountaineers.

Despite some games having more players than spectators, they are helping to pay for improvements at Shepherd Stadium, which is used by the city’s high school, youth leagues and the American Legion teams.

The games are also part of an effort to bring in thousands of dollars in sports tourism money to the Tri-City area.

Colonial Heights Recreation and Parks Director Craig Skalak said the idea of sports tourism started in 2010-2011. Rules were changed that gave the Recreation and Parks Department more flexibility to negotiate with teams and offer package deals.

He said fees aren’t intended to generate a lot of money, but will at least break even. The biggest benefit is to the local economy.

“The sports tourism dollars that are there, with teams staying in our hotels, eating at our restaurants, shopping at the mall, or whatever, we just see this as a big benefit, not just to us but to the entire community,” he said.

With around two dozen people per team, it is estimated that they have brought tens of thousands of dollars into the regional economy.

Teams in the north look for places to play farther south this time of year. Cold weather and snow often prevent them from playing. Florida is a popular destination, but the less they have to travel, the more they can save on travel.

“One of the teams ... had three feet of snow on their ballfield,” Skalak said. “So they’ll make the southern trek.”

Skalak said Thomas Seay, with Dinwiddie Parks, Recreation and Tourism, played college baseball in the Northeast and has an in with some of the teams. They reached out to Colonial Heights to partner in bringing the teams to the area.

Dinwiddie and Colonial Heights are already working on bringing back the teams for next year.
The new scoreboard at Shepherd Stadium is shown during a college game March 2.

“We’re looking at six to eight teams coming back next year” and more teams coming back after that, Skalak said. Next year they also hope to add college girls’ fast-pitch softball, using fields in Dinwiddie and Colonial Heights.

Skalak said Shepherd Stadium is the only field in Colonial Heights that he felt comfortable bringing college baseball to. He said the playing surface is outstanding.

And attracting teams has gone hand in hand with improvements to the historic Shepherd Stadium.

“Shepherd Stadium is very dear to us. I am a life-long citizen of Colonial Heights and played ball here all through high school and so it has a special place with me,” Skalak said.

Having college teams play at the stadium will help offset the costs of making improvements at Shepherd Stadium. And likewise the improvements will help attract more teams.

City Council approved a five-year, $250,000 plan to make improvements at the historic stadium.

In July 2013, a new sound system was added.

Last month, a brand new scoreboard was unveiled. The old scoreboard had basic scoring for home and away but was a lot smaller than the new scoreboard. The new one has LED lights that are much easier to read, especially during the daytime.

“It’s probably one of the components of the stadium that we heard the most complaints about,” Skalak said.

He said there were a lot of other things they could of added such as pitch speed radar and video, but they wanted to use city money wisely.

Skalak said they are adding modern enhancements but hope to retain “that old ballpark feel, the tradition of it.”

Some improvements have been accomplished in-house. They added a brick backstop and new netting. The brickwork was done with the help of inmates volunteering from Riverside Regional Jail.

The improvements planned for late 2014 and 2015 are new dugouts. The current dugouts are too small for many teams to fit all of their players, and they lack protective fences to keep foul balls from flying directly at the players.

The recent college teams that visited had 20 to 30 players and many of them sat on extra benches or stood outside of the dugouts during the game.

“You can’t get comfortably a full Little League team in there. Times have changed. Teams are bigger,” Skalak said.

He said there are also issues with flooding.

“When we have heavy rains, the dugouts will fill with water,” he said.

After the dugouts, they plan more cosmetic improvements.

From 2015 to 2017, they want to add a brick facade to the grandstand area and replace the chain-link fence with a more ornamental fencing. They also want to make improvements to the main entrance to the stadium.

In 2017 and 2018, they plan to add chair-back seating.

Skalak said updating the locker rooms and adding an indoor hitting facility or meeting space would be nice but are a bit of a pipe dream with the limited funding they have. They could also add poles and better netting to protect nearby homes and vehicles from flying balls.

They also are considering adding padding on the backfield wall to improve safety for outfielders. Skalak said they may be able to accomplish that through their revenue and donations. He said the American Legion, which has teams that play at the stadium, has donated a lot of money already.

Those interested in making donations to improve Shepherd Stadium can send checks to the Colonial Heights Foundation, P.O. Box 423, Colonial Heights, VA 23834, and include a note specifying it for Shepherd Stadium enhancements.

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