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PNG field among first to be audited

Major League Baseball is playing hardball with minor league franchises across the country when it comes to ballpark upgrades.

The hardball demands are coming with a price, too ­– a steep price, in fact, for some minor league clubs.

The Altoona Curve, like all other minor league franchises, have received a lengthy list of facility standards that must be met in order to remain in good standing and live up to standards set forth in the Professional Development License with Major League Baseball.

The Curve will have to make a number of upgrades to Peoples Natural Gas Field over the next four years, in order to meet the MLB standards.

It is too early to know the full extent and price of the needed upgrades, Curve officials say.

Estimates for upgrade costs floated publicly for other minor league franchises — all of which have their own unique set of circumstances — have ranged from $1 million to $2 million and all the way up to a staggering

$15 million at Double-A Reading, one of the Curve’s fellow members in the Northeast League.

“It’s very early on in this, but we have continually had talks to make sure that we are doing what is needed to make sure that minor league baseball will stay in Altoona,” Curve general manager Derek Martin said.

The framework

Major League Baseball’s facility standards list includes dozens upon dozens of items that minor league franchises must pore over to determine if they are in compliance.

Peoples Natural Gas Field already is in compliance with about 85 percent of the list, said Martin, who could not get into more specific numbers.

That means the Curve have to concern themselves with about 15 percent of the required upgrades.

A certain level of standards have to be met by the start of the 2023 season, according to MLB’s requirements. Additional standards then must be met by the start of the 2024 season, and lastly full compliance must be in order by 2025.

These are some of the major upgrades that will be required at many minor league facilities, since these typically have not been customary at such venues.

Martin said PNG Field already is in good shape in some of these areas, but not all. Such as:

n A kitchen and dining area for both the home and visitors clubhouses. This figures to result in a significant expense for the Curve and many other franchises, because finding the space in smaller minor league ballparks and making the required renovations could come with a hefty price.

n Facilities will be required to have two enclosed batting/pitching tunnels. PNG Field has a large indoor cage on the home clubhouse side that includes two batting/pitching areas, so the Curve should be covered already on this requirement. Many franchises that don’t meet the requirement could face a major expense with this element.

n There must be a separate space in or near the clubhouse for an office/locker room for female staff members. The Curve would need to meet this requirement.

While finding extra office space might not seem like a big deal, many minor league facilities were built in tight quarters, so this could mean adding a sizable room.

That may be difficult in some venues, particularly when in conjunction with ballparks that must add kitchens, batting cages and/or weight rooms.

There are many, many other items in the lengthy list MLB sent to teams, ranging from expensive (lighting upgrades) to more reasonable (padded outfield walls).

The space issue

The biggest issue — and perhaps largest expense — for the Curve is expected to come from finding and renovating the space necessary to add kitchens and the additional office/locker room for female staff members.

Martin called PNG Field “landlocked” and said that, when it comes to adding things, “We can’t build out, so we have to build in.”

Aside from the major additions required, the Curve figure to be in a stronger position than many other minor league franchises when it comes to ballpark features.

The team has maintained PNG Field to a high level over the years — internally and externally — so that it already meets 85 percent of the requirements in the MLB list of standards.

“Credit goes to the architects and (owner) Bob Lozinak for design of the ballpark, and the Curve have been proactive over the course of 22 years,” Martin noted.

Curve officials have done an internal audit to determine what all they’ll need to upgrade. However, the final say will come from MLB auditors, who will visit every ballpark and make their own determinations.

Martin said the Curve already have been informed by MLB that PNG Field will be in the first group of ballparks audited.

That’s a plus, Martin added, because the Curve can find out early what areas officially may need to be addressed.

When will upgrades happen?

The short answer is, not for a while.

When the Curve determine exactly what all changes they will be making, Martin said the goal would be to do all of the renovations at the same time.

Some upgrades must be completed by 2023, some by 2024 and some by 2025.

But the Curve’s hope is to have a full plan in place and submitted to MLB to cover all upgrades needed for the entire three-year period, with the hope that it could buy some time so that maybe construction doesn’t have to be completed until after the 2023 season or later, not before.

Martin estimated that it could take eight to 10 months to complete all of the projects.

“In a perfect-world situation, we would like to do it all at one time,” Martin said. “We’d rather not have three years of ongoing construction. We’d rather just hammer things out all at once.”

Who will pay for upgrades?

This is a big unknown at this stage. Across the industry, there’s a feeling that minor league franchises should and eventually will be able to receive at least some public funding to help cover upgrades that are required in order to keep the teams in their cities.

It might appear that every team and every city may be on their own here, but that may not necessarily be the case. Pennsylvania has six affiliated minor league franchises: Altoona, Erie, Harrisburg, Reading, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and Lehigh Valley.

Gov. Tom Wolf and commonwealth politicians could decide not to try and help any of the franchises with the upgrade costs, but that could further the risk of a city losing a team. State officials, therefore, could band together and try to come up with a financial package that helps all of the franchises.

State Rep. Jim Gregory, a former Altoona Curve employee, said no such discussions have taken place yet in Harrisburg.

“I go back to the days when it was called Blair County Ballpark, and there was a plaque on the front of the stadium that said ‘paid for by taxpayers,'” Gregory said. “That was people investing in Blair County, from a tourism perspective and a business perspective. … It raised the profile of Blair County all across the commonwealth and across the country. When you invest like that, you have to expect there will be future needs.

“If it is for the sake of moving Blair County Ballpark (PNG Field) forward, for the sake of credibility, visibility, business, tourism, I believe the commonwealth and me in particular, I believe that in the House we would investigate every and all possibilities to make sure that that investment continues forward.”

Erie received a $12 million grant from the state in 2018 to help with ballpark upgrades needed at UPMC Park.

That money, however, came before the COVID-19 pandemic, which changed the economic landscape everywhere.

If all of the state’s minor league franchises were to need help during the same time period in the coming years, Gregory suggested, “I would suspect that we would be looking at a package of dollars to figure out how to support all of these teams at the same time.”

The Curve also receive a substantial amount of money annually from a county lodging tax package that was implemented in 2017, set up in part to help the franchise pay for ongoing ballpark improvements.

Blair County Commissioner Bruce Erb said the Curve have received the following amounts each year from that tax package:

n 2017: $179,000

n 2018: $186,000

n 2019: $190,000

n 2020: $139,000

All of that money received so far has been used to pay for debt incurred from ballpark improvements made a few years ago, as part of a 10-year deal.

So this package currently does not represent new money for new renovations.

“We really thought it was important to do whatever we could do to keep the team here in town,” Erb said of getting that tax package in place four years ago. “It was important to do that for the community and keep the Curve here.”

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