Appalachian Power Park opened to fanfare 10 years ago
Charleston’s old Watt Powell Park was ingrained in the city’s baseball history.
But it was crumbling and aging, and the new owners of the Charleston Alley Cats were threatening to leave town if a new stadium wasn’t built – thereby leaving the city without a minor league baseball team.
That was in 2001.
Initially, city officials, including then-Mayor Jay Goldman, were unsure about the ability of the city to fund a new ballpark at the same time the city was working on other projects, like what is now the Clay Center.
But by the end of 2001, the city, with support from Kanawha County officials and then-Sen. Vic Sprouse, was already looking at spots for the new stadium.
Other municipalities, including South Charleston and Nitro, also offered to help with the effort.
Initially, a city task force – the Alley Cats Blue Ribbon Committee – identified a potential site on the near West Side as suitable for a new ballpark, and by the fall of 2001, the committee had narrowed the field to seven sites scattered from North Charleston to the southern end of Kanawha City.
By 2002, the city appeared to be moving forward with the proposal, and had settled on a property known as Morris Square, negotiating a purchase agreement with property owner Al Summers.
However, a key part of the necessary funding puzzle – a $12 million grant from the state Economic Development Grant Committee – was in jeopardy.
The state committee first approved of the grant in 2002, along with a number of other projects totaling around $215 million. But that fall, the West Virginia Citizen Action Group filed a lawsuit claiming the committee’s decisions to be unconstitutional and asking the state Supreme Court to halt all funding issued by the committee.
The Supreme Court sent the suit to Kanawha Circuit Court, and though Kanawha Circuit Judge Charlie King ruled in January 2003 in favor of the grant committee, the Supreme Court decided to take up an appeal of the decision, further prolonging the receipt of grant funds.
In May, the Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s decision, ruling 3-2 that the grants were unconstitutional on the grounds the state Legislature had too much say in the appointment of grant committee members.
The very next month, newly-elected Charleston Mayor Danny Jones took office and named two ballpark supporters, Rod Blackstone and former city Councilman David Molgaard, to positions of assistant to the mayor and city manager, respectively.
Also that month, the Legislature authorized then-Gov. Bob Wise to appoint members of the grant committee during a special session, thereby satisfying the issues the Supreme Court had with the committee. Wise later reappointed all but one of the nine committee members. One member declined to be reappointed.
But although the committee was back in place, the new committee had to re-approve all 197 grant applications originally submitted to the old committee, including the 35 that were approved.
The funding for the ballpark was re-instated in August 2003, but was stopped again by another lawsuit.
Larry Harless – the same lawyer who represented the West Virginia Citizen Action Group – sued the state again in 2003 over the state’s use of video lottery machines and the development grants.
At the same time, officials in Charleston were getting worried that although the Alley Cat owners had tolerated the delays thus far, patience might be running out.
The Alley Cats’ Major League franchise, the Toronto Blue Jays, warned Alley Cats owner Tom Dickson in September that they would pull the team from Charleston if a new stadium wasn’t ready in time for the 2005 season.
“We need help,” Jones said at the time. “We’re real close to losing Class A baseball in Charleston. If we don’t have something by October, we’re in trouble.”
Fortunately for the ballpark, the Supreme Court upheld the grants in a 5-0 decision in October 2003, finally setting the stage for the ballpark to move forward.
The next month the ballpark had more good news after the Alley Cats were sold to a group of investors based in Charleston and Huntington. The group made no qualm about wanting to keep baseball in the capital city, and were prepared to sign a 20-year lease between the Alley Cats and the city – an agreement that required the team to partially repay the city for the cost of the new park.
“There is zero intent to make the slightest change to baseball in Charleston,” Tom Turman, one of the investors, said at the time.
With the $12 million in grant funding in place, city council approved the final purchase of the Morris Square property in January 2004 at a cost of $6 million, and city officials inked a demolition, excavation and construction deal with BBL Carlton (the same company responsible for the Four Points by Sheraton that opened in 2014) later that month.
Finally, on March 18, 2004, ground was broken for the new ballpark, which then-Gov. Bob Wise called “a home run for West Virginia.”
However, though construction was beginning, the final plans weren’t finished.
Steel prices had “gone through the roof,” and a final, scaled-back design of the ballpark was mostly finalized later that year.
As the city struggled to keep the ballpark in its $23 million budget, there was also question of whether or not the warehouse at 601 Morris St. – a produce warehouse built in the 1910s – would be included in the final design of the ballpark.
City officials mulled whether or not the cost to demolish the building and build a new structure was greater than the cost to renovate the warehouse. Eventually, revenue from state-issued bonds would fund the warehouse part of the project.
The $23 million ballpark project ended up being funded with a puzzle of state and local funds. $12 million came from the development grant committee, $8 million came from taxable bonds with a 5.67 percent interest rate and $5 million came from the November 2004 sale of Watt Powell Park to the University of Charleston and Charleston Area Medical Center.
Watt Powell was sold for $5,000,055 – with the additional $55 representing the park’s 55 years of existence, University President Ed Welch said.
To pay off the bonds, Charleston was to get $6.5 million from the 20-year lease with the team and the Kanawha County Commission also pledged about $135,000 a year for 14 years toward that expense.
In November, the Charleston Alley Cats officially changed their name to the West Virginia Power – intended in part to reflect the power of the state government in Charleston and the state’s energy industry. In February 2005, Appalachian Power purchased the naming rights to the stadium for an undisclosed price. The city gave the franchise the right to sell those rights.
Finally, on April 14, 2005, Appalachian Power Park opened, with 5,352 in attendance for the West Virginia Power’s season opener against the Hagerstown Suns.
There was still some work to be done though, and final touches to the stadium, including some decor for luxury boxes and paint, were still being made on opening day.
Work later in the season would add some canopies to the stadium to shield fans from the summer sun.
Still, the ballpark ended up surpassing attendance projections in its first year. According to an August 2005 Daily Mail editorial, the new ballpark brought well over 200,000 people to the East End – more than any year at Watt Powell Park.