DETROIT – Frank Sinatra sang a song in the 1970s called "There Used To Be a Ballpark."
It is a melancholy reminiscence of a once-storied ball yard that disappeared under the wrecking ball. Though about Ebbets field in New York, Sinatra could just as easily have been singing about old Tiger Stadium in Detroit and its bereft-to-this-day baseball faithful.
Now, there is no shortage of vacant land in Detroit and few people feel particularly attached to any of it. But there is one corner of this town that has experienced the polar opposite. It is the beloved-on-an-immeasurable-scale corner of Michigan and Trumbull. Since the day they finished tearing down the ramshackle old stadium roughly a decade ago, an indefatigable army of Navin Field/Tiger Stadium faithful volunteered to pick up trash, groom the old diamond with their own riding lawnmowers and rakes, and sweep the sidewalks outside the fence. They became the self-appointed grounds crew for an old ghost. They have fought to keep the diamond where it is, the way it is and have been unabashed in that effort. They have clung to the building and its diamond as if they contained the fountain of youth. The only thing they didn't do to try and prevent the inevitable was chain themselves to the place when the demolition crews showed up.
On the other side of this is Detroit Economic Development Director George Jackson. He has managed to do the impossible: spark development in this beleaguered city for more than a decade despite the old mayor [who shall now go unnamed] running city hall as a criminal racket and one of the worst recessions the nation's seen in generations.
He knows "the corner," as it is affectionately known from the Ohio border to the most remote recesses of the Upper Peninsula, is very valuable and exceptionally developable land. He also knows there is far better use for a city on the rise than a fenced in old ball diamond. He has resisted attempts by many to develop the space with no capital behind their grandiose plans to make the old ballpark sing once again with stores and apartments. His hope has been to recreate Corktown into a happening neighborhood. There are proud young hipsters already changing this landscape just up the street and Jackson waited to pick the right moment and the right project where the city gets the most bang for its buck.
Today is that time. Jackson told Local 4 today in an interview that he has been receiving unsolicited plans to do some special things with the corner. Jackson said to make things fair he is putting out what is known in the municipal development business as an RFP, an acronym for Request for Proposal. It's a formal bidding process where developers who want to build somewhere present their plans with drawings and explanations of what they intend to do and more importantly explain where their financing comes from. Jackson believes the economy has improved sufficiently and the momentum is finally there to put hundreds of apartments and condos, office space, retail and the headquarters of the Police Athletic League at the corner. PAL has been renting office space in mid-town for years.
The intent is to have PAL manage, do the upkeep and operate the ball field at the corner which would be useful for little league style play all the way through high school. Jackson says baseball is a dying art in this day and age and he would definitely like to see it rekindled where greats like Cobb, Ruth and Kaline once dug in at the plate. PAL as an organization is positively thrilled with this arrangement and can't wait to move in.
Not so happy are the baseball faithful. They want the original diamond to stay where it is. That is highly unlikely based on the renderings the city provided today but it is possible that could change depending on what developers come up with.
Developers have until late May to have their RFPs sent in to the DEGC and we won't have a winner chosen in these sweepstakes until late August.
It has been a long slow slog to get here. Let's hope for the city's sake, as it looks toward a new beginning after municipal bankruptcy, that this is a development everyone can live with. Let's put an end to the solemn strains of Sinatra fade and have a new generation make something better and more beneficial than that old ballpark, considering the new one is now 15 years old and filled with wonderful stories of its own.