A sharply divided Lancaster City Council voted 3 to 2 Tuesday to approve a $10-million stadium project for a minor league baseball team, drawing the city into a league that has been phenomenally successful in its most recent stadium ventures.
Beginning next April, the stadium will be the new home of the Seattle Mariners' California League affiliate, now called the Riverside Pilots.
"The ballpark is a monumental step toward making this city a jewel in the city structure of California. We are arriving," boasted Lancaster City Councilman Frank Roberts.
Some critics and the two dissenting council members, Michael Singer and Deborah Shelton, questioned the rush to approve the deal and its potential cost to the city.
"We'll be out there on the hook for about $7 million of the $10 million," Singer said.
City officials estimate that construction of the stadium alone, not counting land and other expenses, will cost $6.2 million.
A model for what could grow in Lancaster lies in Adelanto, a small desert city about 40 miles east of Palmdale, near Victorville. Maverick Stadium, built four years ago off a remote stretch of Highway 395, is home to one of the 10 teams in the ever-changing California League.
When Maverick Stadium opened in 1991, more than 3,000 fans made the trek to the desert each game to see major league hopefuls play and to be entertained by an array of promotions that ranged from 2-year-old racing mascots dressed as giant dinosaurs to the Dirtiest Car in the Parking Lot contest.
The California League, one of professional baseball's top Class-A leagues since its creation in 1941, has expanded into three new Southern California stadiums in the 1990s. The boom started with Maverick Stadium, built for a tidy $6.5 million, which has been a smashing success, leading the league in yearly attendance records.
"A new facility in a new community that hasn't had baseball just creates an entirely new level of civic pride," said Steve Pastorino, general manager of the High Desert Mavericks. "I don't know what people in Lancaster get excited about these days, but next year everyone in Lancaster will be talking about Lancaster's baseball team."
Pastorino was also assistant general manager of the Lake Elsinore Storm last year, when that city's $24-million, 6,000-seat stadium opened and attracted nearly 5,200 fans a game.
"In Lake Elsinore, you could argue the city had been dormant for 50 years," Pastorino said, "but the ballpark really got people together for the first time."
The Epicenter, home of the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes, opened in 1993 and has seen an average of 5,300 fans pass through its turnstiles each game during the past two full seasons.
Lancaster did not join the new stadium movement when it began in 1990. Citing cost as the problem, a somewhat differently constituted Lancaster City Council turned down a proposal at that time by former California Angel Doug DeCinces to spend $4.7 million on a 3,500-seat stadium to attract a minor league team,
Apparently, the stadium boom was too good to resist this year, though.
Lancaster City Manager Jim Gilley is counting on the excitement generated by a new team and ballpark to grip his city the way it has other towns.
"This is another one of those great moments, those defining moments in the development of this community," Gilley said Monday at a news conference announcing the move.
Pastorino said he sees no reason why the success of the other new parks won't be replicated in Lancaster. He added that about 25% of the group sales represent fans who come from the Antelope Valley.
The 4,500-seat Lancaster stadium, to be built on an 18.4-acre site at the intersection of the Antelope Valley Freeway and Avenue I, is expected to be open in time to start the 140-game season in April.
Tom Tingle, coordinator of minor league operations for Kansas City-based HOK Sports Facilities Group, the firm that is designing Lancaster's park, was also on the staff of HNTB Sports Architecture when that firm designed Maverick Stadium.
Tingle said completing the construction in time for opening day in April will not be a problem. He said, for example, that ground was broken for Maverick Stadium in October, 1990, and the first pitch was thrown in April, 1991.
He also said horror stories about stadium costs soaring above projected figures should not be a concern because such problems typically occur when construction is unnecessarily hurried, resulting in overtime costs for workers and rush orders for shipping.
The Diamond in Lake Elsinore is the frightening example. Original estimates were $8.5 million for the stadium, but the latest number is nearly three times that.
"A lot of times you try to squeeze too many things into it, and you get overambitious," Tingle said.
Among the amenities at the Diamond are a full-service restaurant in the left-field corner, 3,000 square feet of office space, fountains, extensive brickwork and luxurious clubhouses.
The Lancaster project will be simpler, Tingle said.