After a 37-year absence, Texas League minor league baseball is returning to Amarillo — and in a brand new place to play.
The Elmore Sports Group will move its San Antonio franchise to Amarillo and into a $45.5 million downtown stadium for the 2019 season. The move, which was announced Wednesday at a news conference, marks the return of AA affiliated minor league baseball to the city for the first time since the Amarillo Gold Sox left in 1982.
“We are very excited,” said D.G. Elmore, group chairman. “We have moved teams at various times in our 36-year history of owning ballclubs, and as I reflect, I don’t think there is a time we have seen the level of business support like this.”
“In many ways, it’s unprecedented,” Elmore said. “This type of support is fantastic.”
In a game of minor league baseball musical chairs, the San Antonio club will relocate to Amarillo as another Elmore-owned club — the AAA Colorado Springs, Colo., team — moves to San Antonio. Elmore’s rookie team in Helena, Mont., will then move to Colorado Springs.
“We’re very confident it will be a success in Amarillo for two reasons,” Elmore said. “First, it’s the initial support we’ve seen and we also feel like we’ve got a pretty good feel for what’s going on in a market this size and ways to attack that market.
“We’re confident of the people we have in place to build a culture of going to a baseball game, that it’s all about building a culture in a community where families think about what to do on a spring and summer evening and one of the first things they think of is, ‘Hey, let’s go to the ball game.’”
The news conference was not coincidentally at Xcel Energy’s new $42 million building, which opened in May on Buchanan Street. It is directly across the street from the nine acres upon which the stadium will be built.
It is the third and final major piece of a downtown development catalyst project that includes a 750-car parking garage with retail space and a 225-room Four Diamond Embassy Suites hotel, which city officials said will open likely in September.
“This is a win for Amarillo, and as a city, we’re thirsty for a win,” said Amarillo mayor Ginger Nelson, who has been in office a little more than a month.
“This gives us something to be unified behind and something to have fun together doing. It will be a quality of life addition to our city and region.
“We’ve had our head down quite a bit here in the city limits lately, and I really want to use this as an opportunity to lift our eyes up and think more regionally because we are the leader in the Panhandle region.”
The Elmore Group and the City of Amarillo have agreed to a letter of intent, and are expected to finalize a lease between 20 and 30 years as early as July 11. Amarillo Deputy City Manager Bob Cowell said a portion of the lease would go a city-controlled maintenance fund for the new stadium.
The lease amount expected in the final agreement is the highest in the eight-team Texas League, said Alex Fairly, who helped negotiate the lease as part of a four-person sub-committee of the Amarillo Local Government Corp. Members of the sub-committee met in person with the Elmore group at least a half-dozen times over the last 10 months.
Amarillo won over an effort from Wichita, Kan., with a population of 400,000 and a proposed $60 million stadium along the Arkansas River, Elmore said. To a lesser extent, Lubbock was also considered.
“It’s an excellent deal for the city,” said Jerry Hodge, former Maxor Corp. chairman and longtime baseball booster. “Even though we had some ups and downs, I was confident we could get it done. We had some issues, but they were mainly self-inflicted in Amarillo.
“The timing had to be good for the Elmores, and we wanted to honor that. They were very easy to work with. We had a good comfort level with them.”
With the lease, the Amarillo club will receive revenue from ticket sales, corporate and suite sponsorships and in-stadium signage, concessions and structural parking.
All eight Texas League teams charge for parking. Elmore will be responsible for non-structural costs, which includes the grass playing field and utilities.
“People will debate if this is a good deal or not. It’s the best deal in the (Texas) League, and that speaks for itself,” said Amarillo City Manager Jared Miller. “Now some of those lease payments go to have money to make facility enhancements in the future, so it doesn’t go purely to debt service.
“But it is creating a capital fund other cities have to do on their own. We’ve structured part of the lease payments to go to that fund so we can guarantee stadium upkeep.”
Amarillo’s entry back into the Texas League returns the city to the historic league for the first time since leaving Potter County Memorial Stadium in 1982. Since then, various independent league teams, including the successful Dillas of the mid- and late 1990s, filled the summers at the aging ballpark adjacent to the Tri-State Fairgrounds.
But a new stadium, first discussed by city commissioners as far back as 2007, was essential in attracting the much higher caliber AA affiliated baseball. That level is two rungs below the Major League.
The goal of a new ballpark was stated in March 2008 in a Downtown Strategic Action Plan. It was one of 12 goals for downtown development.
With the work ahead of securing a design firm and naming a contractor, city staff hopes construction will begin on the stadium in December. It is anticipated to take 14 months to complete. The exact number of permanent seats and berm seating area has yet to be determined.
San Antonio is the AA affiliate of the San Diego Padres, the club the Gold Sox were a farm team of from 1976-1982. Two-year affiliate contracts end in 2018, so there could be a new parent team. The 140-game Texas League schedule begins in early April and ends in early September with approximately 70 home dates.
The Elmore Sports Group, formed in 1969, is seen in the industry as one of the top minor league ownership groups in the country.
Elmore owns six affiliated baseball teams, two soccer and one hockey team, as well as five companies, including Cartan Global Travel Agency.
“They are just world-class great people,” Fairly said. “I know their reputation in sports. They are just a class organization. They tell the truth. They deal with you in good faith. It will be a good relationship with the city.”