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Cooper Stadium: Eighty years of entertainment
“I still have a vivid mental picture from when I was five or six years old of walking through the gate into Red Bird Stadium… it was a night game with a large crowd on hand. The roar of the crowd and the excitement in the air that evening are still with me,” said local historian James Tootle.
Over the span of 80 years Cooper Stadium had a number of names, including Red Bird Stadium, Jet Stadium and Franklin County Stadium. It provided generations with lifelong memories, similar to Tootle’s.
The Franklin County commissioners closed the sale of Cooper Stadium on July 24, after four years of research and discussion. The former baseball stadium will be repurposed as an automotive research center and entertainment pavillion.
The King Holding Corporation and Arshot Investments purchased the stadium for $3.4 million.
The Central Ohio Community Improvement Corporation received an agent fee of $33,000 for reviewing developers, said Franklin County Commissioner Marilyn Brown.
The remaining revenue from the purchase goes toward economic development in the Franklinton and Southwest areas, job retention in the county and offsetting project costs for the Huntington Park stadium, according to legislative language.
“Cooper Stadium was a valued county asset for more than three decades, and now is the right time to see it redeveloped for our region’s future, with cutting-edge research and electric-power vehicles in the bustling city center for our county,” said Paula Brooks, county commissioner president.
Tootle said the ball park was always viewed as positive for the neighborhood. However, due to the lack of development of restaurants, pubs and other entertainment venues in the West Mound Street area, there was nothing to make people come early and stay afterwards.
Brown said the automotive research center will be a long term solution, which will bring investments into the area, such as a hotel. She added the project will bring employment, including construction jobs when building starts next year.
“There will be jobs created once it’s a regional draw, and we expect it to be a regional draw,” Brown said.
Arshot will develop the 47-acre property into an outdoor amphitheater and racetrack in addition to its research capacity. One of its primary focuses will be alternative fuel sources, said Lisa Griffin, Arshot community outreach represenative.
“The primary driving force behind each of (the stadium) changes was to provide a quality home for a top level minor league baseball team. However, the ball park has always been used for many other purposes, from political rallies to music concerts to Billy Graham crusades to high school football games,” Tootle said.
One such example of an alternate use was when Franklin D. Roosevelt attracted a large crowd for a campaign speech in 1932 after he was nominated as presidential candidate by the Democratic National Party.
According to Brown, the county wanted a developer who benefited the entire county, particularly residents in nearby neighborhoods. They believed Arshot’s plans will bring activity and vibrancy to residents.
She added the history of the former ball park will not be lost. Brown said this project is an evolution of the site that gave residents such far-reaching memories.
“The change from a baseball park to an automotive research facility and track is significant, but from what I have seen of the architectural drawings… some of the historic grandstand will continue to serve as a spectator area for sporting events,” Tootle said.
According to Griffin, the research and development facility is slated to open in 2013. The entertainment pavillion is expected to open in 2014.
Tootle’s book, “Baseball in Columbus,” begins with the earliest clubs of post-Civil War era and goes to modern day teams like the Clippers. It is available at Barnes & Noble and amazon.com.
The History of the stadium
Red Bird Stadium was built over the winter of 1931-32 for $450,000. It was envisioned as serving as the home for the Columbus Red Birds, a farm team for the St. Louis Cardinals. Its opening game on June 3, 1932 brought in 15,000 fans, said Tootle.
The stadium was envisioned by Branch Rickey, president of the St. Louis Cardinals, and proved successful. Tootle said even during the Great Depression, the Red Birds enjoyed excellent rosters and drew large crowds.
At the advent of television in the 1950s, attendance throughout the minor leagues declined. This resulted in the St. Louis Cardinals moving its franchise to Omaha after the 1954 season, Tootle added.
However, the stadium was reborn when local business leaders purchased the Ottawa franchise of the International League and moved it to Columbus, renaming the team the Jets. The venue was renamed Jet Stadium.
Tootle said the stadium fell into disrepair after the 1970 season, which led to the city of Columbus losing the Jets. Franklin County Commissioner Harold Cooper was later instrumental in bringing professional baseball back to Columbus in 1977.
Cooper’s efforts sparked a remodeling of the stadium into a state-of-the-art facility that proved popular, drawing large crowds for baseball games.
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