Robins & Morton will serve as General Contractor on Birmingham’s new ballpark

How the deal for Birmingham’s new ballpark was done
by Michael Tomberlin – The Birmingham News

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — A developer pitched the idea, but it took a lineup of heavy hitters that included the mayor of the state’s largest city, the city’s largest employer and a millionaire baseball team owner to pull off a $64 million project to build a baseball park and museum in downtown Birmingham.

With a whirlwind of legal and financial maneuvering Thursday afternoon, deals were completed on the purchase of all of the property for the baseball stadium near Railroad Park and to lock up $64 million in bank financing for the project.

But it took a lead-off batter to get the pro­ject to this point. It was nearly three years ago when Robert Simon, president of Cor­porate Realty, went from thinking it would be neat to have a downtown baseball park to putting effort into making it a reality.

“This was a vision I had, but what amazes me is seeing the commitment that was put forth by so many others to get this deal done,” he said.

Virginia Williams, executive assistant to Birmingham Mayor William Bell, said the bulk of the work for the city started in Octo­ber 2010 after the City Council approved a 3.5 percentage point increase in the city’s lodging tax to pay for the project.

“The time since has been devoted to as­sembling the site, putting a development team together and getting the design work complete in addition to securing the actual financing,” she said.

Assembling the property took the most time, she said.

“The originally proposed site wasn’t the best for the project, so we had to explore other options,” Williams said.

That caused the project to shift a couple of blocks south and east from the original plan that had the ballpark going on the cur­rent Merita bread factory to the west of the Railroad Park.

“Birmingham had to take the lead on a project of this size, scope and scale,” Simon said. “It needed to happen and it needed to happen there at the Railroad Park.”

Williams said the Negro League Museum will be on 16th Street, a symbolic location given the place the 16th Street Baptist Church holds in civil rights history.

“Now, 16th Street will have the new Children’s Hospital and the Negro League Museum on one end and 16th Street Baptist Church and the Civil Rights Institute on the other,” she said. She said work has started to assemble items for the museum.

In a round-robin of signatures at the law offices of Sirote & Permutt on Thursday, one conference room was devoted to completing the property sales and land swaps with UAB for the portions of the four blocks it owned where the baseball park will be built. Another conference room was where BBVA Compass Bank and Citizens Trust Bank handled the completion of $64 million in loans carrying an interest rate of 3.09 percent. A third conference room was set aside to hammer out any snags the various parties encountered in the other two conference rooms.

“You had all of these attorneys working together to make this project happen,” said Jim Stanley, assistant city attorney for Birmingham. “By and large, all of them were cooperative towards the same goal.”

Lawyers from at least four different firms were on hand to get the deals done.

‘The magic date’

Now the end of the paperwork marks the beginning of the physical work.

The development team is led by Corporate Realty Development and Brasfield & Gorrie. The general contractor is a team of Robins & Morton and A.G. Gaston Construction Co. The design team consists of baseball park specialists HKS Architects of Dallas, along with Birmingham firms Hoskins Architecture and GA Studio.

“Ballparks are unique in how you go about designing them,” Simon said. “You really start from the inside out with what amenities and features you want to have and then you bring in the structure and then you finally skin it.”

Williams said the ballpark will build off the city’s industrial past and pay homage to the surrounding area with lots of brick and steel.

Simon said final designs may also include a corporate name if naming rights are sold.

Nearly all of four blocks — First Avenue South to Third Avenue South and 14th Street to 16th Street — have to be razed to make way for the baseball park and museum. Demolition will start early next year.

Look for the final designs of the ballpark to be completed in March, making it possible for construction to start as the demolition ends. At that point, construction has to move at a very brisk pace to have the ballpark ready in time for the opening pitch of the 2013 baseball season.

Robert Gambrell, senior vice president of Robins & Morton, said the plan is to move rapidly to build the project.

He said if demolition starts in January, utility and site work should follow and actual construction could be under way by next April or May. The work will take about a year.

“Spring of 2013 is the magic date,” Gambrell said.

Can they make the ambitious schedule?

“I know we’ve got some great subs (subcontractors) in Birmingham and we’re all going to push to make this happen,” Gambrell said. “It’s a high-profile project that always gets everyone excited to go to work.”

Bill Morton, president of Robins & Morton, said the ballpark is something the construction industry and everyone in the region needs right now.

“I really believe the baseball stadium is a transformational project for Birmingham and the surrounding area,” he said. “This project will create a new entertainment draw for downtown Birmingham and complements the beautiful work already done at Railroad Park.”

UAB President Carol Garrison said she thinks the project is an economic development home run.

“We believe that the synergy between the baseball park, Railroad Park and UAB’s northern development will attract retail to the area, which will benefit us all,” she said.