When plans were announced to place an independent Atlantic League team in North Carolina, it seemed like a real long shot to many industry insiders. With the opening of BB&T Point in downtown High Point, independent baseball joins the many baseball options in the Piedmont Triad.
If North Carolina is the cradle of the game, then the Piedmont Triad is its heart and soul. The Triad includes Greensboro, Winston-Salem and High Point—already home to two affiliated minor-league teams and two summer-collegiate Coastal Plain League teams. Downtown High Point is only about 20 miles from BB&T Ballpark, home of the Winston-Salem Dash (High A; Carolina League). First National Bank Field, home of the Greensboro Grasshoppers (Low A; Sally League), is just 17 miles away.
And, that’s just the affiliated minor-league teams. Asheboro’s venerable McCrary Park, home of the summer collegiate Copperheads, is 26 miles away, and the home of the Thomasville Hi-Toms, whose actual team name references both High Point and Thomasville, is a mere five miles away.
This, of course, is part of the reason that independent baseball was the only possible choice for High Point; the Grasshoppers and Dash could both veto an affiliated team’s move into High Point, and the Coastal Plain League was unlikely to approve another team five miles away from an existing franchise.
On the other hand, Atlantic League officials clearly knew that the Triad is a region of over 1.6 million people, ranking as the 31st-largest market in the United States, according to the 2010 census. High Point itself is a city estimated at roughly 112,000 and known as a hub for the furniture industry.
The Atlantic League Comes to the Tar Heel State
The independent Atlantic League would seem like an unusual geographic fit for a city in North Carolina. Historically, the league’s core had been in the Northeast, although a Maryland team was added twelve years ago. A team in Sugar Land, Texas joined the circuit in 2012. The league has a stated goal of reaching 12 teams, and it seems that they will not be deterred by travel distances.
As the Atlantic League has evolved, teams have had remarkable success in getting new facilities built. Of the eight teams in the league in 2019, seven are playing in facilities that were built specifically for the Atlantic League. High Point business and civic leaders, with High Point University president Nido Qubein as the chief cheerleader, were eager to follow suit. They secured a total of $36 million to build this new ballpark, which they envision as a centerpiece for the revitalization of downtown High Point.
Bringing activity to downtown High Point is a unique challenge. The city hosts a furniture market twice a year, when manufacturers and buyers from all over the world congregate in High Point to select products for their retailers to carry. These events fill every hotel room and rental in the region, but it’s only a few weeks per year. And many of the furniture companies have massive, glitzy buildings in downtown that are only used during those few weeks. As a result, downtown High Point can feel like a ghost town when the furniture market isn’t in town.
This city is not lacking for money, though, as many large companies and individuals committed to sponsorship and ticket buys for a baseball team. The city council decided to fund the ballpark construction to the tune of $36 million, and lots of private donations were pledged for the subsequent phases of the downtown revitalization project, including a planned children’s museum, educational cinema and events center.
While much of the revitalization work, as well as a hotel and an office building, are still in the works, the park itself is a tremendous start on High Point’s vision for its community. On the night of our visit, there was heavy rain less than an hour from game time, so the crowd was understandably light. But, thanks to the artificial playing surface, the game was started after a brief delay.
Because of the poor weather on the night of our visit, the team was asked to provide some photos from Opening Night to provide images with better lighting and a more representative view of their attendance. When you look at these images, you may initially think that they are architectural renderings, because the field and many other details seem almost too perfect. In fact, the park really looks like this. The ballpark is pristine, and the artificial playing surface includes perfect stripes of alternating shades of green, mimicking the patterns created by a skilled groundskeeper.
Keepin’ It Cozy
The facility seats just under 4,000 people, almost all of it in fold-down chair seating. This seems like a good size for the average minor league baseball crowd, but for big events like concerts, the park should be able to hold thousands of additional fans on the field, another benefit of the artificial surface. In fact, initial plans called for a 5,000-seat ballpark, but team president Ken Lehner, a veteran owner and operator, lobbied for a more intimate ballpark, and that was probably a wise move.
The majority of the grandstand is just nine or ten rows deep, with an open concourse behind home plate and down the third-base line. The first-base side holds the club area, a row of suites, the press box, and the video and sound booth. Some of the most unique features are still to come, such as a second level to the club lounge, and a new group area beyond left field, including a “grill-your-own-food” section, should open for next year.
The club seating areas, located behind the first-base dugout, include several hundred black seats composed of breathable, comfortable mesh. The club lounge, right above these seats, features floor-to-ceiling windows that provide a great view of the field. Club members are offered pre-game hors d’oeuvres and two complimentary beverages; later in the game, warm cookies are served.
The third-base concourse is fronted by a row of open-air loge boxes. Separated from the concourse by brick partitions about four feet tall, these boxes offer catered food and beverage and flexible seating arrangements. Great for fans looking to see and be seen, these spaces offer the luxury of a suite with the feel and sounds of being in the seats.
There is a box office and a gate in center field that brings fans into the park from the corner of Church and North Elm. This feeds onto the open 360-degree concourse, featuring plenty of drink rails. This area also offers a striking view of the whole ballpark.
A pedestrian bridge in the left-field corner allows for truck access to the field, and a large open plaza in the right-field corner can accommodate groups of up to 300, as well as providing an open space for food trucks, musical performances and other activities.
The main box office and team offices faces out to Lindsey Street on the street level behind home plate. The main entrance from the home plate side of the park runs up a long ramp and a set of stairs runs parallel to the first-base line. It leads directly to the entrance of the Catalyst Club, and a left-hand turn brings you onto the concourse behind home plate.
Tickets, Food & Drink
Ticket prices range from $5 for outfield bleachers to $14 for box seats behind home plate. There are several nice group areas, including a field-level section in the left-field corner that will remind North Carolina readers of a similar section at the Durham Bulls ballpark.
The concessions are concentrated on the third-base concourse, with big concessions stands featuring an extensive menu. The concessions offerings are varied, including the standard ballpark fare, as well as combo baskets featuring home-style chips at reasonable prices.
Just to the third-base side of home plate, the High Pint is a creative space that does triple duty. On game nights, this area serves a walk-in souvenir store on one side, and a craft beer tap room on the other. The beer selection includes some great local brews, including offerings from Brown Truck Brewery and the granddaddy of local brewers, Red Oak. On Thursday game days, the Rockers offer their own variation on the standard Thirsty Thursday promotion, with a “First in Flights” beer special: three sampler beers for a dollar. Even on Thursdays when the team is on the road, the Rockers still open the High Pint as a bar and offer this pricing promotion.
The High Pint also feature some outstanding design details. The lights hanging above the bar were crafted from the personal bat collection of team president Ken Lehner. A large stand-up table in the center of the room was made from a furniture factory table saw, and hanging artwork made from baseballs really catches the eye.
Tour the Majors in High Point’s Outfield
One notable feature of a park this size is the outfield seating, but right field includes a particularly unique element. Their vintage seat section provides actual seats from a variety of major and minor league parks right below the massive video scoreboard. The ballparks represented range from Fenway Park to the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, and there are also two Metrodome seats, specifically installed to satisfy Rockers pitching coach and former Twins star Frank Viola.
Behind the Scenes
The team made a bit of a splash with their visitor’s clubhouse. It’s painted pink, just like some prisons, and it may be meant to make the opposing team feel like they are changing inside a bottle of Pepto-Bismol. So far, only the Sugar Land Skeeters players have publicly lodged any complaints, though.
The home clubhouse and training room are comparable to new affiliated facilities and includes private coaches and managers offices. A full commercial laundry set up will make the clubhouse manager happy, and a generous storage room will warm the hearts of every ballpark operator who’s ever cursed a lack of space.
For the Kids
Overlooking the field down the third-base line is a nice kids play area that was busy on the night we were there. There is a clever double-use feature down the third-base line, where a covered pavilion serves as the team’s batting facility during the day, but by game time, the nets are pushed back, and half of the area is used for additional kids play space during games.
Speaking of kids and nets, the Rockers have done a great job with fans safety. They have netting running from foul pole to foul pole. The Major Leagues could take some notes from these guys; it’s got to be one of the safest facilities for kids that I’ve seen.
More to Come; Beyond Baseball
The name of High Point’s overall downtown-development effort is the Catalyst Project. And the main goal of the ballpark is to be the centerpiece of that downtown development. The planned hotel, office tower, and a community park are all part of the future plans for this site, and the overall project is also slated to include a children’s museum, an events center and other significant philanthropic investments.
The financial model for the team also involves quite a bit of non-baseball activity. The ballpark is envisioned as a place that can host furniture market concerts previously been held in parking lots, as well as corporate functions and other entertainment.
The unusually square shape of the ballpark and playing surface and the deep right-field foul line is a very visible indication of the capacity to host soccer and lacrosse events at this stadium. The use of artificial turf, including a moveable pitching mound, means that the facility is highly versatile, and a third clubhouse, currently unfinished, is expected to be the home of a pro soccer team in the future.
Grading the Point
From a longshot to a beautiful facility anchoring a host of potential development, High Point and the Rockers have certainly moved the ball a long way down the field. The city was clearly swinging for the fences with their $36-million investment in the facility. As with any big civic project, it will likely be many years before a final verdict can be rendered on the city’s baseball play. The Bulls ballpark in Durham is hailed by many as a great example of economic development through sport. But, it’s easy to forget that it took almost a decade from the opening of the Bulls’ new park until the beautiful American Tobacco complex opened across the street, and that the ballpark project did not originally feature onsite office-tower development.
In the meantime, baseball fans in the Triad can enjoy an embarrassment of riches. From Opening Day in the spring until summer rolls into fall, there will be very few days when fans won’t have a choice of multiple games in this area. From the intimate nature of the ballpark, the spacious concourses, all the modern amenities and the versatility, the Rockers and the leadership of High Point have added a real gem to their city.
Address: 301 N. Elm St., High Point, NC 27262
Opening: May 2, 2019
Cost: $36 million
Architect: Odell Architecture (Charlotte, NC)
Contractor: Samet Corp. (Greensboro, NC)
All overhead photos provided by the High Point Rockers.