Before it hosted a million fans in two and a half years, before it saw Thirsty Thursdays, Fireworks Fridays and a Southern League championship, before players who now call Chicago’s U.S. Cellular Field home walked on its infield, Regions Field was just Robert Simon’s crazy idea.
Simon had been on trips with the Chamber of Commerce to other cities of different sizes — Nashville, Atlanta, Denver — and saw how the big drivers of their development came to be. He saw that these major developments fit the size of their cities. A big enough city could sustain a massive football stadium, but a smaller city could parlay a minor league ballpark into a similar effect.
So Simon, the president of Corporate Realty, got an idea. In 2009, he pitched it to Don Logan the owner of the Birmingham Barons. The Barons, who then played at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium — then called Regions Park — would come back to Birmingham. A downtown ballpark would mean much more than baseball.
“Minor league baseball is perfect for secondary and tertiary markets in the country,” Simon said. “I felt like this was very doable for our area.”
At that breakfast, Logan asked Simon if it was possible. Simon said he thought it was. Logan told him to go make it happen.
It’s been six years since Simon pitched the idea, three since Regions Field opened in downtown Birmingham. The park has hosted more than a million fans, but it’s what’s around the park that’s most exciting for Simon. The growth of the new Parkside District, Simon said, is about four years ahead of where he thought it would be.
Regions Field turned from idea to reality, Simon said, because everyone had a seat at the table, from developers and team owners to city leaders and even UAB. It’s a model that could work for any project, perhaps a recipe supporters of a new UAB football stadium could follow.
“There were so many people who helped along the way because they knew it was the right thing for Birmingham,” he said.
Setting the stage
When Robert Simon started to pitch the idea of a downtown ballpark, the Barons were playing in the sprawling confines of the Hoover Met, a park that was close to home for those in Birmingham’s southern suburbs but far from the city center. Simon wanted to draw people back into the city after they left work at 5 p.m. He wanted to disrupt their commutes.
So Simon and Corporate Realty found partners all over the city, from the Birmingham City Council and Mayor William Bell to UAB’s then-President Carol Garrison and Athletic Director Brian Mackin. He and others visited more than a dozen other cities to see how they built similar facilities and what effect they had on the surrounding areas. They knew they wanted a small, intimate ballpark, with fewer seats than the Hoover Met.
“The naysayers of the park were the ones who didn’t understand what it would do,” he said. “They didn’t understand that it didn’t need to be bigger, it needed to be smaller.”
Simon and other developers and investors put together a proposal and feasibility study for the ballpark. That report estimated the park would generate direct and indirect spending of more than $500 million over 30 years, and economic impacts similar to parks in other cities.
“Everything is positive within the draft,” Mayor Bell said at the time. “It’s positive to the point that we are comfortable taking the next step.”
Location, location, location
Simon said they also developed strategic plan for the area around the new Railroad Park. From the start, that’s where Simon wanted the park, though the first plan was for it to be at the site of the old Merita Bakery building, across 14th Street and First Avenue South from where it ended up.
“We felt like the location was going to be a game changer,” he said.
The Merita Bakery property ended up not working out, but another space nearby started to come together. The space across First Avenue South from the western end of Railroad Park was partially controlled by UAB. The university and the city worked together to put together a parcel of land that could fit a ballpark. The city swapped land with UAB to secure the space.
UAB officials weren’t worried at the time, in 2011, about the ballpark conflicting with the school’s proposed location for a football stadium. The two proposed venues would be a block apart.
There was one holdout: The owner of the B&A Warehouse building didn’t want to sell. Bill Mudd eventually worked out a deal with Barons owner Don Logan to build the park around his building, an event center in a 100-year-old building.
Getting it built
The city took out $64 million in loans at the end of 2011 to pay for the construction. The city added 3.5 cents to its lodging tax to pay back the debt, bringing the total lodging tax, with state and county taxes, to 17.5 percent in Birmingham.
When the city council voted 8-1 in 2010 to approve the tax increase, Bell praised it as a big step forward for Birmingham.
“It gives the city a sense of momentum,” Bell said at the time. “We’ve not acted like a major city that we are, and it’s long past time that we act like a major city.”
Regions again paid for the naming rights to the stadium, ensuring the Barons would move from Regions Park in Hoover to Regions Field downtown. The bank is paying $500,000 over 20 years — half to the city and half to the Barons — for the rights. The city broke ground on the site in February 2012.
There were some hiccups during construction. A sinkhole opened up at the plaza entrance of the park in January 2013. It was repaired but forced the relocation of some sewer lines.
Construction costs did run over what was expected: Developers billed the city for $8 million in cost overruns, a number that the city has negotiated down to $4.1 million, but is still in the midst of legal disputes.
Those problems didn’t slow down the project. On April 10, 2013, the Barons took the field for the first game in their new home. In front of a sellout crowd of 8,505, the Barons came from behind to win 9-5, taking the lead for good when Marcus Semien hit the Barons’ first home run at Regions Field, a two-run shot to left to break a tie.
Since then, the Barons have drawn more than a million fans to Regions Field. They won the Southern League title that first year and led the league in attendance. They proceeded to top that attendance number again the next year. This season, their third in the new park, they’re drawing even more fans a game than the past two years.
But the impact isn’t just on the baseball field and in the stands. It’s in the space around the park, towering cranes hint at things to come within a few blocks of home plate: apartment developments, more retail space and the Negro League Museum.
“In 2013, when we moved down here, I think people certainly saw it as a sign of great things happening in Birmingham,” Barons General Manager Jonathan Nelson said. “When they came down in 2015 one of the things we promoted was all of the active construction sites within a four or five block radius of Regions Field.”
The growth of the Parkside district was one of the reasons Simon pushed for the ballpark to begin with. His company, Corporate Realty, has had a hand in more developments in the area.They’re currently working to turn the former Merita Bakery building into restaurant and office space.
All of that development in turn helps the Barons sustain the growth they’ve seen over the past three years.
“It adds to that total experience of attending a game at Regions Field,” Nelson said. “When you go to any major league ballpark or minor league ballpark, you want to be able to go to a restaurant prior to or after a game. I think that lends itself to the total experience and makes it an even more enjoyable night for everybody.”