Like a lump of coal that in time and under pressure transforms into a diamond, Memphis' AutoZone Park, home of minor league baseball's newly franchised Triple A Redbirds, was a long time in the making. At least it seemed that way to many local residents.
Though financial issues delayed construction, the tune of this musical city and its residents soon changed when the 12,300-seat park opened to much fanfare and a capacity crowd on April 1, 2000, only 16 months after construction began. Neither the park nor the team proved to be an April Fool's joke. That first year, the park set attendance records for the city. The team performed well, and continues to do so.
The park drew older residents and families back downtown. "Everyone on the project knew it was going to be something special, but no one knew it would be the hit that it's been," says Ricky Bursi, president of the Office of Griffith C. Burr Inc. (OGCB), Memphis, the park's mechanical engineer. He cites his parents as an example. "On opening day, you saw older people walking through the streets on their way to the ballpark, and my parents were among them. They hadn't been downtown in 25 years."
During design, the park's potential evolved. "As design began, we thought that the park could mean more to downtown than simply being a ballpark. That potential grew throughout the design," says Frank Ricks, a principal of Looney Ricks Kiss (LRK), the project's locally based lead architect. HOK Sport + Venue + Event, Kansas City, Mo., was the ballpark consultant.
Though the project was complicated by a fast-track schedule and changes were made throughout design and construction, the building team accomplished its objective of bringing a minor league ballpark with a major league flair to a city that was desperately seeking a way to revitalize its urban core. For these reasons, the judges of this year's Building Team Project of the Year Awards selected AutoZone Park as a Merit Award winner in the commercial building category.
"What we did here was build a small major league ballpark. It's built to major league specifications," says Dean Jernigan, co-founder of the not-for-profit foundation that owns and operates the team and the ballpark. "LRK and HOK together with [general contractor] Beers/Inman and the rest of the team did a wonderful job. We made a great decision in having a local lead architect with HOK Sport as the consultant. LRK knew how to weave the ballpark into the fabric of the city and the warehouse district," he says.
Bruce Miller, project principal for HOK Sport, which has designed more than 70 minor league ballparks, says he is proud of project's outcome, and of his firm's partnership with LRK. "I think it was a great collaboration between the two firms, and certainly drew on the strengths of both team members, and were able to find that balance of talents. It was a 50-50 effort overall."
The quality of the local minority subcontractors such as Gipson Mechanical Contractors was central to the project's success, says Chuck Winstead, president of Beers Skanska Sports, Atlanta, and managing partner of the joint venture of Beers and local general contractor Inman Construction. He also credits the involvement of Dean Jernigan and his wife Kristi. "They sat down with the team to solve any problems, and that rarely happens," says Winstead. "The key was to bring up issues and solve them immediately. The owners and everyone else on the team came together, and instead of dollar problems we had dime problems," he says.
Part of a 20-acre redeveloped site in the heart of downtown, the ballpark, as well as the team, an affiliate of the major league St. Louis Cardinals, is owned by a not-for-profit foundation — a structure unique in professional sports, says Dean Jernigan. "I don't feel there is a place for traditional owners these days in professional baseball," says Jernigan, who in his "day job" is chairman and CEO of Storage USA, a Memphis-based storage business. "When a community feels that it owns a team, it supports that team."
The Jernigans felt so strongly about this that they purchased the franchise in 1998 and began to build the new ballpark before they had secured all the financing for the $49 million facility. With their own money, in addition to $8.5 million invested by the city and county, they purchased the site in a blighted downtown area.
"We jump-started the project and let the community's expectations for the park get out in front of us," Jernigan explains. Among the financing measures was the sale of the park's naming rights to AutoZone, the Memphis-based auto parts retailer, for $5 million over 15 years.
Atypically, the park's design determined its budget. "I wanted us to design the best ballpark we could, then see if I could get the money to build it," Jernigan says of his approach. "Had we set a budget beforehand, it would have been dramatically lower than what we ended up being able to afford. This was challenging at times, but we ended up with a much better product."
The ballpark uses 125,738 feet of brick wall, 3,400 tons of exposed structural steel trusses, and a structural steel standing-seam roof supported by a series of purlins spanning between the roof trusses. These elements reflect a classic, neo-traditional style that draws from historic major league ballparks such as Boston's Fenway Park and Chicago's Wrigley Field.
To see how newer ballparks have melded technology and modern conveniences with traditional ballpark aesthetics, the Jernigans and the architects toured 15 major and minor league ballparks around the U.S., including Baltimore's Camden Yards, designed by HOK Sport, and Atlanta's Turner Field.
Touring the parks while AutoZone was under design and construction occasionally "wreaked havoc" on the process because design changes often followed these visits, says Ricks. "But [the Jernigans] were working to build the best park possible. The process went back and forth continually," he says.
But in the end, because of the park, the community has been reunited with its downtown. Miller, concurs, saying, "This park has done what most cities hope their minor league parks will do. I think the integration of the ballpark with the surrounding development is unique and very successful. The result speaks for itself."
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