tipping point noun : the critical point in a situation, process, or system beyond which a significant and often unstoppable effect or change takes place
With new stadium and quarter-billion-dollar Grain District development announcement, Downtown Spartanburg’s moment has arrived
By Will Rothschild
This piece has been discussed for years. When will Downtown Spartanburg’s revitalization tipping point arrive? And will we know it when it does?
Answering those questions has been a popular parlor game for years among supporters, investors, business owners, and even Downtown Spartanburg’s more casual observers and visitors. With every announcement—and for the past decade, there have been a LOT of announcements—the questions would be asked again.
“Is this it? Is this the project that will fundamentally transform the central business district? Is this the moment?” And, “If not now, when?”
If you had the Spring of 2023 on your Downtown Spartanburg Tipping Point Bingo Card, you win.
While we don’t know exactly what it looks like just yet, we do know what Downtown Spartanburg’s tipping point smells like. It’s pine tar and popcorn, draft beer and hot dogs and freshly cut grass. We also know what it sounds like. It’s walkup music. The unmistakable crack of a bat and the sizzle of postgame fireworks. And, most of all, it’s the sound of thousands of happy people.
It’s a modern minor-league ballpark, a home for the Texas Rangers’ Class-A affiliate, anchoring a $250-plus million mixed-use development tucked into the Grain District on Downtown’s emerging western gateway. If ever there was a moment for overused cliches, this is it: Minor-league baseball returning to Spartanburg in a new downtown stadium is an absolute game-changer for our community.
A Next-Level Public-Private Partnership
Repeat that figure again: $250-plus million. That’s a quarter of a billion dollars, of which the 3,500- seat baseball stadium will be just a portion. In addition to the ballpark, the 16-acre parcel that sits adjacent to the AC Hotel is expected to include dozens, perhaps hundreds, of units of multi-family housing, as well as tens of thousands of square feet of office, entertainment, conference, retail, and restaurant space, bounded by Daniel Morgan Avenue and Henry Street.
The entire project is the brainchild of Spartanburg-based The Johnson Group, the family-owned enterprise whose numerous investments and projects dating back decades have sparked downtown’s revitalization. The Johnson Group will develop the entire project, while the City and Spartanburg County are essential partners in the project. The City will own the stadium, and lease it to Diamond Baseball Holdings, an experienced minor-league baseball operator that owns several teams, including the one it will move to Spartanburg from its current home in Kinston, N.C.
This, of course, is just the high-level outline. The details will be filled in over the coming weeks and months through a public process during which the The Johnson Group and the City will work on all the necessary development agreements.
It will be, by far, the largest single private development in the city’s history. And the announcement comes just a year after what had been the single biggest announcement in history, an $80 million redevelopment that would transform the block of East Main and Broad streets between South Church and Liberty. That project promises to bring 24,000 square feet of restaurant/retail space, 20,000 square feet of office space, and at least 160 apartments and condos, while creating needed pedestrian connections and storefronts between East Main and Broad streets.
Combined with a series of previously announced plans—a redesigned Morgan Square, redeveloped City Hall block to house a new city-county administrative complex, and a planetarium planned for the corner of South Church and Broad—the spine of Downtown Spartanburg will be wholly transformed over the coming few years.
Downtown will be more vibrant and fun, yes. But it will also be more connected and cohesive. It will become a more complete destination, with hundreds of additional residents providing energy and prominent new entertainment options weaving into a growing tapestry of restaurants, retailers and watering holes, all drawing ever more visitors. In the middle of it all, a redesigned and green town square providing ample room for leisure and respite, while also serving as a pedestrian hub that encourages visitors to continue exploring along one of several connected spokes.
Even within the context of such a historic period of investment, the Grain District project stands out. And not just for its price tag.
A Central Point of Pride In A City On The Rise
A block west of Morgan Square sits an already-thriving entertainment node, home to Rockers Brewing, Main Street Pub, and Cribb’s Kitchen, the birthplace of Spartanburg’s resurgent foodie scene. It is a center of activity that offers everything from near-nightly live music to axe throwing.
Those businesses sit directly across East Main from the AC Hotel (also developed by The Johnson Group) and its 10th floor rooftop bar and restaurant, which provides commanding views of the Grain District and beyond.
And that leads us back to the new stadium, which will include a 5,000-square-foot event room, enabling the ballpark to host year-round events in addition to the 70 home games hopeful future major leaguers will play every year between April and early September, beginning as early as 2025. Those games and other events will bring thousands of people into the core of downtown, fueling businesses with additional foot traffic.
Beyond that, this project will provide a central point of pride for the community. The as-yet unnamed stadium will be owned by the City, the team that plays there will be owned by Diamond Baseball Holdings, but in a larger sense, both will belong to Spartanburg. To all of us.
Whether you live in Hillbrook or Duncan Park, Wadsworth Hills or Park Hills, whether you’re a city resident or you call Inman or Cowpens or Lyman or Moore home, this will be your team. Your children and grandchildren will get to see up close professional ballplayers, some of whom will eventually make it to the big leagues. Sitting in a stadium with hundreds of your fellow community members or seeing someone wearing your team's hat or shirt are communal, bonding experiences.
That’s what makes this project so powerful.
In the history of Spartanburg economic development announcements, it is unlikely any will ever trump the day in June 1992 when BMW announced it was going to build its first North American manufacturing facility on a sweeping piece of former farmland 4 miles southwest of Duncan, adjacent to I-85 and the airport. That investment resuscitated what was, at the time, a comatose Spartanburg economy, and kickstarted what has turned into more than 30 years of economic growth that has put Spartanburg on the map as a 21st century industrial powerhouse.
The downtown ballpark announcement will likewise raise Spartanburg’s profile—albeit for different reasons. Already, media outlets and baseball-specific publications across the nation have published the stadium news, giving thousands of people reason to learn more about our community.
But this development will echo far beyond the initial news reports and headlines. While people used to move for jobs, younger generations increasingly move for amenities, features, and opportunities that collectively fall in the basket labeled as “quality of life.”
And there is arguably no better single poster child for that than a new downtown stadium, nestled among a couple hundred million dollars worth of additional new assets. Both practically and symbolically, it makes an unequivocal statement about Spartanburg as both a market and as a community.
A New Experience
It also fills in what has long been a blank piece of the downtown canvas. The stadium will be roughly 350 yards from the heart of Morgan Square, about 500 yards from the Fr8 Yard and the planned planetarium, and about half a mile from Denny’s plaza.
Which means in the not-too-distant future, you will be able to park along East Main Street or in the Dunbar or Kennedy street garages, pick any one of numerous spots for lunch in that part of downtown, then walk five minutes to the planetarium. After some star-gazing, you could walk another five minutes and grab some ice cream or a beverage from one of several options. After that, perhaps a leisurely meander through the shops and boutiques that surround Morgan Square, then a pregame beer at Rockers, before heading to the ballpark in plenty of time to be in your seat for a 7 p.m. first pitch.
That’s a complete downtown experience. Complete—and completely different than anything people have known here before. Already increasingly drawing attention from regional and national developers, this news will significantly increase Spartanburg’s allure and put additional possibilities in play. Consider, for example, how attractive brand-new office space adjacent to a downtown ballpark may be for all sorts of corporate headquarters.
What was that definition again? The critical point in a situation, process, or system beyond which a significant and often unstoppable effect or change takes place.
Indeed, while baseball’s allure lies in its timelessness, this project heralds a new ballgame for Spartanburg.
Will Rothschild is a former journalist and City of Spartanburg Communications Manager who has lived in Spartanburg since 1999. He prefers lower-level seats even with the pitcher’s mound down the first-base line.