The Texas League baseball season may still have a few weeks left to run, but it's not too early to classify the Tulsa Drillers' move to the new ONEOK Field a resounding success, if attendance figures and the response of neighboring business owners are any measurement.
Brian Carroll, the team's director of media relations, said last week that heading into a four-game home series against Springfield on Aug. 6, the Drillers already were on the verge of surpassing last season's total attendance. The 2009 Tulsa squad attracted 316,365 fans to 68 games for an average crowd of 4,652 during its last season at Drillers Stadium at the Fairgrounds. This year's team had drawn 312,203 fans through 49 games at downtown's ONEOK Field, an average of 6,371 per game -- an increase of more than 1,700 fans per game.
Team owner Chuck Lamson welcomed that bump.
"Absolutely," he said. "Even though the history from other franchises shows you usually get a nice attendance increase, you never take that for granted. But you always hope people are excited by a new facility and want to see it."
The team's presence downtown also served as good news for many local merchants, including those in the historic Greenwood district, where the new ballpark is located.
"Business is going well for the storefront establishments that cater to the ballpark crowd," said Reuben Gant, president and CEO of the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce. "We don't have an abundance of storefront businesses, but the ones that are conducive to foot traffic have done well."
That take was echoed by Blake Ewing, owner of Joe Momma's Pizza, Boomtown Tees and The Max Retropub in the Blue Dome district just south of the ballpark.
"I think it's definitely been good," he said of the team's arrival downtown. "It's never turned out to be a situation where we've had a big, huge night, but we have seen extra business. There's been a consistent crowd all year long, which is awesome. That's the best kind of business because it's easy to plan for."
Greg Gray, president of the Brady Business Association in the adjacent Brady Arts District, was somewhat less enthusiastic about the impact the team's presence had had in his district, though he still counts the experience as a positive one.
"It's not a negative, that's for sure," he said. "But it's not been as good as some of the businesses here hoped for."
Gray said the new ballpark is so self-sufficient -- with its numerous eating, refreshment and other entertainment options -- that many fans haven't had reason to venture into the surrounding neighborhoods yet, at least not to the degree that he had hoped.
"The pre-ballgame business has not been as strong as some of us would have liked," he said. "But afterward, some of the bars near the field are doing better than anticipated."
Before the season started, many observers pointed to the lack of on-site parking at the ballpark as a potential problem. But that doesn't seem to have been much of an issue this season, especially from Gray's standpoint.
"If you want to remind (fans) there's some free parking in the Brady, go ahead -- at least until next season," he said, laughing and referring to the numerous improvements that are planned for the district, including streetscaping projects, a new park and a new hotel.
Ewing also laughed off the idea that baseball fans would take up all the parking in his district.
"No, that's crazy," he said. "There's enough parking here for three ballparks."
Gant initially was concerned that parking might be more of an issue in his district, given its proximity to the ballpark. But those fears proved unfounded, he said.
"It actually went more smoothly than we expected," he said. "Of course, we don't have a lot of metered parking or reserved parking. But we haven't had any major issues. The patrons of the ballpark haven't taken up the parking that is principally for customers (of businesses in the area). And when that has happened, it's only occurred during daytime games. So we haven't had any big issues."
The Tulsa campus of Oklahoma State University made its on-campus parking available to fans on weekends, though the parking lots were off limits on weeknights when classes were in session. Dr. Ron Bessert, OSU-Tulsa's vice president for administration, said having the Drillers for a neighbor was a positive experience.
"There haven't been any difficulties," he said. "We've had no problems with providing adequate parking for our students, faculty and staff, and at the same time making it accessible to fans on weekends."
Bessert said the school would probably need to remind fans its parking lots are unavailable for weeknight games when its fall semester begins in a few days, but he didn't anticipate that causing any problems.
"In the interaction I've had with fans, they've been courteous, and it's clear they're here to have fun," he said.
Bessert said he envisioned the school making its on-campus parking available to fans again next season.
Lamson believes his team's new home has helped spur a renaissance in downtown Tulsa, and he said the approximate 40 percent increase in attendance is proof that fans have embraced the move.
"When you look at where we came from, Drillers Stadium was liked by a lot of folks," he said. "It was a comfortable situation, and there were concerns by a lot of people about coming downtown -- 'Where am I going to park? Is it safe?' The usual reservations, a fear of the unknown. I heard a lot of that."
But Lamson said he has been approached by many people over the summer, including some of those most resistant to change, who have indicated they like the new ballpark and have not had any trouble finding a place to park. He's confident most, if not all, of those concerns have been put to rest.
"I believe so," he said. "I believe you can't predict the future, and over the long term, as more development happens, some of those parking areas may be gobbled up. But hopefully people will program in parking in these residential and retail areas."
The addition of the Drillers to downtown's list of offerings has had other benefits besides positively impacting profits, according to Ewing and Gant.
"The energy it brings to downtown is great," Ewing said. "The sounds and the life it brings to downtown, there's no real way to quantify it, but there's something special about it when you can look down the streets and see the stadium lights. That's been something downtown's been missing."
Gant said the new ballpark has been invaluable in providing attention to his district.
"For me, the main benefit has been we are now in a position to expose the Greenwood district to the community at large," he said. "Up to now, there have been residents of Tulsa who have never been north of the railroad tracks. This has allowed us to expose the ambiance of Greenwood to the community at large."
Bessert welcomed the increased visibility the new ballpark has brought his campus, as well.
"It's been a real plus for us," he said, noting that large numbers of people who had never visited OSU-Tulsa before now are familiar with the facility.
Lamson acknowledged there have been a few small problems with the new ballpark, including field and scoreboard issues. But he said those bugs have been worked out, and the franchise has settled into its new surroundings.
"It's a wonderful facility, something we're very proud of -- and I hope Tulsa is," he said.
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