By Kyle Nagel, Staff Writer
More than 12 years after he led the design of the stadium that would one day house the Dayton Dragons, Jonathan Cole vividly recalls one particular meeting regarding the facility.
The conversation surrounded whether the stadium’s exterior would include gates through which passers-by could see the field. Some said fans would simply watch from the outside instead of paying for seats.
Hank Stickney, one of the team’s principal owners with Mandalay Sports Entertainment, would have none of that argument.
“Hank said, ‘Absolutely, we want people to see what they’re missing, it’s not the same as being inside,’ ” Cole said Wednesday from his Kansas City office. “And he was absolutely right.”
That cooperation and foresight were two elements that aided designers, owners and government in producing a stadium that has helped the Dragons to the verge of an all-time professional sports mark. On Saturday, the Dragons are expected to set the record for consecutive sellouts with their 815th, or each home game the Dragons have played inside the downtown stadium.
Cole, who was 28 when he served as lead designer for employer HNTB (he has since formed his own company), credited support from local government, an innovative spirit of the team’s owners and a few unique aspects for creating a facility embraced by the community.
From there, officials said, the Dragons have filled the park with customer service and entertainment while also maintaining the facility as few others do.
“Something that’s sometimes taken for granted is just keeping the ballpark clean and updated, and (the Dragons) have done that as well as anyone,” said Pat O’Conner, president of Minor League Baseball. “That’s a stadium people want to go back to.”
Building the stadium
A resident of the corner of Monument Avenue and Sears Street since 1895, Requarth Lumber was in a unique position to view the construction of the $23.1 million stadium funded both by public and private dollars.
Requarth President Alan Pippenger, great-great-grandson of company founder Frederick August Requarth, regularly went to a window of the company’s third floor to photograph progress for the company’s website.
He learned more about the community’s — and country’s — anticipation when he returned from a few weeks of vacation.
“I came back and had emails from Oregon, Arizona, Colorado, New York, Florida, people who were from Dayton and wanted updates on the stadium,” Pippenger said. “I didn’t understand before that how wide an audience there was for the progress.”
Passers-by regularly gathered during their lunch hour to watch the construction on the site that was once a railroad depot and Delco buildings location before the open, barren area chosen to house the stadium.
Work was still being completed when the Dragons played their first home game on April 27, 2000, and the stadium had several unique features, Cole said. It included the ability to walk in 360 degrees around the park without stopping. It posted large mascots on the scoreboard and video board, which few did. The Dragons Lair short porch and second deck including suites were also unusual at the time, especially for a Class A park.
“The cool factor has a big effect on whether people want to go to the facility,” Cole said. “That was part of our challenge, to create a new cool factor.”
A community piece
In March 2007, Dragons President Bob Murphy was invited to speak in front of a House Subcommittee on Domestic Policy during its hearing titled “Build It and They Will Come: Do Taxpayer-Financed Sports Stadiums, Convention Centers and Hotels Deliver As Promised for America’s Cities?”
Murphy’s message was yes, they can.
“This amazing success story demonstrates that a city with the proper tools and an engaged partner and with the right economic deal can create something that can not only be a benefit to a community,” Murphy said in his statement to the committee. “It can be a force that can change the community forever.”
As a method for creating a community tool beyond baseball, Fifth Third Field has been used for numerous non-Dragons events. Def Leppard and Bryan Adams performed the stadium’s first rock concert in August 2005, and West Carrollton and Springboro played the first high school game at the stadium in April 2006 (there have since been 123 more played there).
The stadium hosted a boxing event last summer, and an attempt to host a Dayton Dutch Lions soccer doubleheader at the stadium in May was called off because of heavy rains in the week of the games.
Dragons officials said the variety of events underline the organization’s commitment to the area.
“We want people to know we’re committed to the community in ways other than just baseball,” said Eric Deutsch, the Dragons’ executive vice president. “It’s interesting to see different types of events at our facility, because I think it’s a facility the community enjoys.”
Contact this reporter at (937) 225-7389 or knagel@Dayton DailyNews.com.