DOWNTOWN DESTINATION: The 6,000-seat Riverfront Stadium sits beside the Arkansas River in Wichita, Kan. (Courtesy DLR Group)

$75M Riverfront Stadium is new home of Triple-A Wind Surge

The ribbon cutting is on hold for Riverfront Stadium in Wichita, Kan., because of the COVID-19 crisis, but when it finally opens, the minor league ballpark will signal a rebirth for sports in general and the city’s downtown redevelopment.

The $75 million project is the home of the Wichita Wind Surge, the Miami Marlins’ Triple-A affiliate. The team relocated from New Orleans after last season. DLR Group designed the ballpark, and J.E. Dunn and Eby Construction built it.

Riverfront Stadium was close to completion by mid-March, the point at which sports started to shut down because of the novel coronavirus. 

From start to finish, officials laid out an aggressive 14-month design-build schedule, said Lou Schwechheimer, the team’s managing general partner. 

The stadium stayed on budget, which wasn’t easy considering the spike in costs across the industry caused by the high demand for skilled labor at the time the park was being built.

Janet Marie Smith, known for her work at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, Fenway Park and Dodger Stadium among other venues, toured Riverfront Stadium as part of the team planning Polar Park, the minor league venue for the Worcester (Mass.) Red Sox set to open in 2021. Polar Park’s capacity will be similar to that of Wichita’s venue.

“She kept shaking her head after all the troubles they’ve had trying to build that one for the original budget and had to throw more money into it,” said Tom Tingle, DLR Group’s client leader. “We’re in the Midwest and had motivated subcontractors that really wanted to work on a project of this scope. It’s a marquee project for Wichita.”

Now, after the dust settles from construction, it’s a waiting game to see when baseball will start up again and the Wind Surge can show off their shiny digs. Opening day was originally set for April 14. As of early April, Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball officials were still working on a revised 2020 schedule.

“We’re doing our part to follow the letter of the law,” said Schwechheimer, who spent 37 years with the Red Sox organization before putting together a group to buy the old New Orleans Baby Cakes and the Charlotte Stone Crabs, the Tampa Bay Rays’ Single-A advanced team. 

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“Like the rest of the country, we’re trying to put our neighbors and friends first,” he said, “and when we start to get some direction, we’ll do our very best to do what we set out to do and that’s to provide family entertainment and give everybody a respite from these very difficult times.”

The 6,000-seat ballpark (with 10,000 total capacity) sits along the Arkansas River on the site of the old Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, which fell into disrepair over the years. A century ago, that part of downtown was a railroad and cattle hub, similar to the southern tier of Kansas City, Tingle said. 

In Wichita, city officials are positioning the new ballpark as an anchor for revitalizing property on both sides of the river. Two plazas tied to the park will serve as connections to new development, including one gathering space down the left-field line that links to an existing commercial district with bars, restaurants and specialty shops.

A new pedestrian bridge will connect the center-field plaza to the east side across the river.

“Everything adjacent to the ballpark is part of Lou’s development group,” Tingle said. “There are some big plans for those pieces of land. A second developer is putting together a package as well. It’s all part of energizing that whole side of Wichita.”

The ballpark itself pays tribute to the city’s industrial heritage. Wichita is home to Cessna, Beechcraft and a few other small airplane manufacturers. The aviation industry and the railroad are reflected in the brick, burnt wood and rivets in graphic design elements, Tingle said.

Shown during construction, suites at the ballpark move the primary hospitality area outside behind the fixed seats. (Courtesy DLR Group)

The dozen suites, all sold, stand out for a tweak in the design of those premium spaces. DLR Group moved the primary hospitality lounge outdoors with a small patio separating the interior from the outdoor seats. The patios come with roof cover, cushy furniture, stand-up tables, televisions and big overhead fans to push air circulation. 

“We took the best part of the suite and moved it outdoors for a more casual experience,” said Bob Carlson, a principal with DLR Group who worked on the project. “If it’s hot or rainy, you can go inside.” 

Garage-style doors separate the patio from the interior space. The hybrid layout resolves sightline issues from suite patrons blocking views while they’re standing and having a conversation, whether it’s indoors or outdoors, which was a concern of the team, Tingle said.

It all started with a conversation in DLR’s office about the pros and cons of suites. Designers pitched it to the team and they embraced the idea. The ballpark oversight committee, which includes a few City Council members who have suite tickets to Wichita State University baseball games, latched onto the concept immediately, Tingle said.

Riverfront Stadium has multiple areas with views to the river and the city skyline. The rooftop terrace in right- center field is one example, and fans hanging out there might catch a glimpse of Wichita State’s rowing team moving downstream, Schwechheimer said.

The terrace sits on top of a building that houses a baseball museum that won’t open until 2021. In that building at street level is a remote radio broadcast booth with windows that open to the public. Local stations can promote events such as the city’s Riverfest, Carlson said. 

Late in the process, designers added a small brewpub in left field. The indoor/outdoor space is the only destination with fixed positions for serving beer in the ballpark. Most beer will be sold from portable carts, Tingle said. 

Schwechheimer’s vision is to book up to 200 annual events tied to Riverfront Stadium, including 70 home baseball games. He’s talked to the ECHL’s Wichita Thunder about staging an outdoor hockey game on New Year’s Day, similar to the NHL’s Winter Classic. 

Concerts and college and high school football could also be part of the mix. It’s all part of activating an area of Wichita that for the better part of 80 years has sat dormant with little development, Schwechheimer said.

“It’s more than just a baseball stadium. It’s truly a gathering place,” he said.