Duluth’s historic Wade Stadium seeks renovation

The future of baseball at the historic stadium, however, is looking dire unless funding can be secured for renovation. Plans call for $8.1 million worth of repairs and upgrades to the structure, amenities and playing field, with the state and city each covering half of the cost. Wade Stadium

Built 71 years ago as a Works Progress Administration project, the ballpark still stands as a monument to old-time baseball while hosting over 100 games every season.

Throughout the years, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Willie Stargell roamed the outfield. Denny McClain and Jack Morris dominated on the mound. Roger Maris and Darryl Strawberry belted home runs over the outfield wall.

Dozens of other future major leaguers took to the field while the Duluth Dukes ballclub was a farm team for the Chicago White Sox, Chicago Cubs, St. Louis Cardinals and Detroit Tigers.

Today the ballpark is still used by the Duluth Huskies, a summer collegiate team, as well as numerous college, high school and legion teams.

“It’s still a functional facility for the basic playing of the game,” said Craig Smith, the Huskies general manager. "But from a stadium standpoint, for modern amenities, it already is obsolete.”

The renovations would bring a new artificial turf, entry plaza, lights and spectator seats. The concourses would be widened and upgrades would be made to the locker rooms, concession areas and press box.

“What we’re trying to do is keep the historic relevance of the stadium while modernizing it to a modern baseball facility,” Smith said.

Repairs needed throughout the stadium

In order for baseball to live on at the Wade the natural grass has to be replaced with artificial turf over a drainage system, according to Smith.

Puddles in front of the visitors' dugout

Large puddles form across the diamond. The grass in right field is so far beyond repair that it naturally makes a squishing sound, even without recent rainfall. The outfield wall has a six-inch high line of dirt marking where the field used to sit before gradually sinking. Players’ spikes eat away at the grass faster than it can grow in the spring and fall, leaving large areas of grassless field.

Two years ago, the Huskies had nine of their 35 games at Wade Stadium rained out due to poor field conditions. Seven of those games could have been played if the stadium had an artificial turf, Smith said.

“You need $350,000 to break even during the course of the year and it makes it tough getting to that point when you lose $80,000 right out of the chute,” he said. “We do the concessions and stuff, but it just does not generate enough money to make up for those dates.”

Mayor Don Ness expressed concern for safety at the aging, city-owned ballpark.

“If we simply turn a blind eye toward the condition there will be a time when one of those twenty foot brick walls will topple over,” Ness said. “In some areas, they’re leaning right now and that’s a huge liability to the city and we’ll have to address it one way or another.”

Issues of lesser concern involve ballpark amenities and fan experience.

The concourses are currently just 12 feet 8 inches wide, but would be increased to a more spacious 22 feet. Concession areas and restrooms would be remodeled and a concession building and picnic area would be added on the left field side of the park. The old bleachers would be replaced with new, more comfortable seats and a new plaza area and main gate would be added to the main entrance.

“If I’m traveling in the summer months and I end up in Toledo, the first thing that I do is I look to see if the minor league baseball team is playing,” Ness said. “That’s just a nice way for visitors to spend an evening and get a flavor of what the city has to offer. Right now, unfortunately, because of the condition of that stadium, it’s not a great fan experience and it doesn’t necessarily reflect well on the city.”

“This used to be a road”

Wade Stadium’s history goes far beyond baseball. Today the ballpark remains one of just a handful of Works Progress Administration stadiums still in use in the country today.

“It has a lot of historical value not only for the city of Duluth but nationally as well,” Ness said.

In the late 1930s, the WPA was formed by the federal government to put millions of Americans to work on public works projects during the Great Depression. Two of those projects were brought together in West Duluth.

Athletic Park, which had once housed the National Football League’s Duluth Eskimos, was considered undersized and inadequate for the Duluth Dukes baseball club. The stadium was demolished in 1940 to make room for Wade Stadium on an adjacent plot of land.

Meanwhile, construction crews were ripping up hundreds of thousands of bricks from Grand Avenue in order to pave the street. WPA crews reused approximately 381,000 bricks from the street to construct Wade Stadium in 1941.

Many of the bricks in the 71-year-old stadium are believed to be well over a century old.

“It’s kind of cool, looking at these walls,” Smith said, gesturing to the exterior wall in his Wade Stadium office. “In the late 1800s, early 1900s, this used to be a road. These bricks are serious bricks.”

The ballpark was the home of the Duluth Dukes minor league club until 1970, when the team folded. The stadium didn’t have a major tenant again until 1993, when a new Duluth-Superior Dukes team was formed.

Around that time, the city began investing money in the stadium for small repairs.

“The city has done a fantastic job of putting Band-Aids on both the facility and field,” Smith said, who previously worked for the city before joining the Huskies. “But the scope of those fixes was relatively small compared to what we’re looking at today. Those fixes essentially bought us time, bought us the twenty years up until today.”

Local ownership will keep Huskies in Duluth

The Twin Ports lost the Duluth-Superior Dukes in 2002 when they moved to Kansas and became the Kansas City T-Bones. Losing the Huskies was becoming a real possibility due to the condition of Wade Stadium. The team was owned by Bobby McCarthy, a restaurateur in Florida, who spent most of the year away from Duluth.

However, that all changed prior to the 2011 season, when the team was purchased by Michael Rosenzweig, a Duluth stockbroker, and Andy Karon, the owner of a scrap metal business in Superior, ensuring that the Huskies would remain in Duluth.

“Andy and I both feel strongly that baseball belongs in Duluth, Minnesota and we were very concerned that this franchise would get moved at some point,” Rosenzweig said. “We knew that we only had one place to play and that obviously is Wade Stadium.”

Rosenzweig said that the need for a stadium renovation factored heavily into their decision to buy the Huskies.

“We have always believed strongly that at some point there will be the funding available to put this beautiful ballpark at least back into the condition it should be in,” he said. “If something happened to this ballpark and it was gone, where would this team go? It can’t stay.”

Securing funding is a challenge

While the consensus among local officials is that Wade Stadium desperately needs repairs, actually securing funding for the project is much more difficult.

The city has pledged to match the state’s contributions to the project and local politicians hope the state will cover half of the total cost.

“If we got $2 million from the state, we’d match that with $2 million from the city,” Ness said. “Then we would do a much smaller project, half the project, but we’d still be able to address many of the most pressing problems in the stadium.”

With current proposals in the legislature calling for the state to spend $398 million on a new stadium for the Minnesota Vikings and $27 million for a new stadium for the St. Paul Saints minor league baseball team, Ness said $4 million is not an unreasonable amount for Wade Stadium.

Rep. Kerry Gauthier, DFL-Duluth, and Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth, introduced bills into the legislature earlier this year requesting funding for the Wade. The bills received hearings in the House and Senate, but failed to gain much traction in the Republican-controlled legislature.

“I talked to the governor recently and he’s supportive of it and my (party) leadership is in favor of it,” Gauthier said. “With the Republican leadership though, it’s tough. Everything changes minute by minute.”

While Gauthier said he felt confident about getting funding before the legislative session wraps up, he admitted the bill may have better odds in a year or two.

“The longer these things hang around, the more they seem to be accepted,” he said.

More than just baseball

While funding could bring some much-needed renovations to the ballpark, local leaders say it will also have economic benefits to the community.

“We’re talking about an $8 million dollar project,” Gauthier said. “We’ll be hiring all kinds of people for the renovation. When it’s complete, I think it’ll become a regional stadium and we’ll have hundreds of people playing there every year.”

The mayor predicted that renovations would also give an added boost to local businesses.

“We’ll have larger crowds out there, and then both before and after the game, those folks are going to out to eat or go out for drinks at local businesses,” Ness said. “We’re not talking about Canal Park or downtown. This is bringing large numbers of people into a neighborhood and into businesses that need that support.”

The renovations could also bring other events to the stadium, according to Ness.

“If we have a modern drainage system, a field that’s designed for more use and has comfortable seats,” he said, “I think you’ll see a lot more usage not just for baseball, but for other sporting events and for concerts as well.”

Furthermore, Ness said the renovations would allow baseball to be played for decades to come at Wade Stadium.

“There’s not many baseball stadiums out there that have the chance to reach 100 years and I would love to see the Wade be one of the few.”

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