This is the first of a two-part series on Huntington Park and Cooper Stadium. Read Part Two here.
Baseball fans gather at Huntington Park on a May weeknight to watch the Columbus Clippers. It’s been a decade since the minor-league baseball team moved downtown.
The baseball stadium – once a state-of-the-art facility with suites and expanded food menus – is known for preserving the quaint baseball experience. But some of the shine is beginning to wear off.
Randi Cohen and her husband buy discounted senior citizen tickets for $5, and instead of taking a seat, they stand at a counter looking straight onto the field. When Huntington was under construction, the Cohens worried about ticket and food prices. They don't worry anymore.
“We love the stadium,” Cohen says. “It’s beautiful. People are really friendly here. We come to the same spot all of the time and it’s like family. People will come up and hug you and say, 'Oh, you’re back,' you know, at the beginning of the season. It’s great.”
Huntington Park seats up to 8,800 fans, a drop from the old Cooper Stadium on the West Side, which could fit up to 12,000.
“The atmosphere has completely changed, because now when we get to the summer it feels like it’s full every night,” says Clippers president and general manager Ken Schnacke. “That gets the crowd more into the game. It gets the players more into the game. The fact that it’s a smaller ballpark makes the noise louder and makes it more vibrant and more viable.”
In 2009, the team's first season at Huntington Park, ticket sales overall jumped to more than $4.7 million. That’s nearly triple the ticket sales from 2008, their last year at Cooper Stadium.
Sponsorships and advertising also skyrocketed from $835,184 in 2008 to $4.23 million the following year at Huntington Park.
Financial records also show ticket sales steadily climbed over the last three years Cooper Stadium operated.
While Huntington Park has won several awards for its design, some of its star quality is now fading. Despite the soar of popularity after the move, ticket sales have fluctuated in the last few years.
Last year, ticket sales were down by $275,000 compared to 2017, but overall revenues went up nearly $500,000 thanks to increases in sponsorships and special events.
“We were the King of the Hill for a couple years, and then shortly after that, Charlotte came on board with a new ballpark, then Nashville has come onboard with a new ballpark, and now you’ve got this wonder thing in Las Vegas that I haven’t even seen yet,” Schnacke says.
Franklin County paid about $64 million to buy the land and build Huntington Park. Schnacke says the organization put down $19 million, while another $18 million came from short-term notes, now paid off.
The rest came from the county selling bonds, plus a grant of $7 million from the state of Ohio.
Schnacke says they are in a comfortable spot to repay all their debt by the end of 2032. Revenue from tickets, concession and souvenir sales goes to paying back the money. Taxpayers have not been on the hook for the debt.
“We were very cognizant of paying down a lot of the debt early,” Schnacke says. “I mean, for the first 10 years, over 40% of our income stream went to retire debt.”
The Columbus Clippers have come a long way since their start. Franklin County purchased the Clippers franchise in 1976 from the Pittsburgh Pirates for $25,000. Today the team is valued as high as $55 million.
“I think the franchise ownership for us has been a real win,” says Franklin County commissioner Marilyn Brown. “When somebody else owns a franchise, if it’s privately owned, they can take it and leave at any time. We own it, so the taxpayers own this franchise and that makes all the difference in the world.”
While ticket sales level off, Huntington Park isn't exactly falling into disrepair. Last year it got a new field and video board, and Brown says the bones are in good shape for years to come.