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October 22, 2018

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As 51s eye move to Summerlin, will it be curtains for Cashman Center?

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L.E. Baskow

A fan celebrates grabbing a foul ball in the crowd at Cashman Stadium during the Big League Weekend baseball game with the Chicago Cubs and New York Mets there on Friday, April 1, 2016.

From his upper-level perch at Cashman Field, Bob McCarty could see it all: the waffle-pattern grass, the snaking concession lines, the cheering spectators and, of course, the on-field action.

He was sipping a Gatorade on this sunny, 75-degree afternoon as the New York Mets took on the Chicago Cubs during the second day of Cashman’s annual Big League Weekend. A sold-out crowd filled the 9,334-seat stadium, and McCarty, a security officer, was there to keep an eye on the fans.

“I get to watch baseball, see people and get paid,” said McCarty, who owns an insurance agency but works security part-time for fun. “It’s the best thing in the world.”

Future of Cashman Center

The press box at Cashman Stadium offers an interesting view during the Big League Weekend baseball game with the Chicago Cubs and New York Mets there on Friday, April 1, 2016. Launch slideshow »

If the Las Vegas 51s’ owners have their way, McCarty soon could be spending his occasional afternoons or evenings patrolling a new stadium in Summerlin. Since buying the team three years ago, the team’s owners — the Howard Hughes Corp. and several investors — have been pursuing a move that would place the ballpark in Downtown Summerlin, near dining, entertainment and thousands of homes.

The idea hinges on the theory that if we build it, they will come — more fans, that is. Last year, the 51s, the top Triple-A affiliate of the Mets, drew an average of 4,834 attendees to each home game. A new ballpark, the owners say, would be better for the fans and players, providing much-needed amenities in what is perceived to be a safer neighborhood.

But then what will become of Cashman Center, the complex that includes the existing ballpark, a theater and convention space on 52 acres north of downtown? And how will a new baseball stadium be funded?

Those are key questions in ongoing discussions among city, county, tourism and baseball officials who are trying to sort out a win-win for all involved. The urgency increased in recent months because a memorandum of understanding between the city of Las Vegas and the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, which owns and manages Cashman Center, expires in August. The memorandum dictates that if Cashman no longer serves its current function — namely, a home for minor league baseball — the property would be transferred back to the city.

That means Cashman’s days as the city’s home for baseball could be numbered.

“To grow, you have to change,” McCarty said, as he surveyed the crowd. “Now, where they’re going to get the money, God only knows.”

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When Cashman Field hosted its first game — the San Diego Padres versus the Seattle Mariners — on April 1, 1983, the facility was considered one of the premier ballparks in the minor leagues. Besides the gleaming field, the center boasted nearly 100,000-square-feet of convention space, a 1,900-seat theater and meeting rooms.

“From a baseball perspective, it was fine probably the first 10, 12 years of its existence,” said Don Logan, president and chief operating officer of the Las Vegas 51s.

The team, previously called the Las Vegas Stars, was affiliated with the Padres for the first 18 years of Cashman’s existence. When Las Vegas became a Los Angeles Dodgers affiliate in 2001, the team name changed to the 51s, an ode to Nevada’s secretive government base, “Area 51,” that has long been associated with reports of alien sightings.

As the years went by, the 51s’ partnerships continued to change, with stints as a farm team for the Toronto Blue Jays and, now, the New York Mets.

The perception of the facility changed as well. A so-called ballpark renaissance in the 1990s resulted in a wave of new stadiums for Triple-A affiliates, fashioned after their Major League Baseball counterparts, Logan said. Suddenly, Cashman seemed too cramped, with its narrow concourse, small number of restrooms, lack of suites for fans and inadequate player amenities.

A player weight room, for instance, is a converted storage room. And the team’s form of hydrotherapy to soothe athletes’ aches and pains? An old silver tub.

“It’s just substandard,” Logan said. “With the explosion of new stadiums around the country, people come to the most exciting city and come to this ballpark and they’re very underwhelmed.”

Last year, the ballpark’s woes reached a crescendo when sewage backed up near the dugouts during a home game. The incident heightened owners’ calls to move. Plus, the team has been playing great baseball — with two Triple-A postseason appearances in the last three years — and deserves a state-of-the-art facility for both fans and players, the owners argue.

The 51s’ contract to occupy Cashman doesn’t expire until 2022, but it includes a clause allowing cancellation with a two-season written notice.

The owners hope the 51s have a new home by the 2018 season, said Tom Warden, senior vice president of Summerlin for the Howard Hughes Corp. They envision it as a public-private partnership, with the corporation possibly supplying the land.

Even so, it’s not clear how the ballpark would be constructed or who would manage it, he said. The proposed location — Downtown Summerlin, a mixed-use development with dining, shopping and, eventually, residential and office space — sits in unincorporated Clark County.

“It’s early in the process in the sense that those details are yet to come, but it seems like there’s energy now moving that way,” Warden said.

In the past, Logan estimated the project price tag at roughly $60 million.

The LVCVA and city need to resolve their Cashman-related issues before approaching the county about potential involvement in a new stadium for the 51s, Clark County Manager Don Burnette said. And even then, the county would need a financial partner to help fund the project.

“I just don’t know how that project would pencil out if the financial burden fell solely to the county,” Burnette said.

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The stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard between U.S. 95 and Washington Avenue includes a hodgepodge of storefronts, a Siegel Suites, vacant lots and a giant, decorative high heel that once was the sign for a casino.

It’s also home to the Neon Museum, the Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort, Las Vegas Natural History Museum and Cashman Center — all of which contributed to the area's designation as the city’s Cultural Corridor in the 1990s. But if it weren’t for roadside banners installed two years ago advertising it as such, it might not be apparent to the casual passerby.

“Las Vegas is where it’s at today because we’ve always been able to sell the sizzle,” said Rob McCoy, chairman of the Neon Museum’s board of directors. “The term Cultural Corridor has absolutely zero sizzle. We need to find that marketing piece that all the partners along that portion of Las Vegas Boulevard can buy into and co-promote.”

That’s why McCoy is particularly curious what happens with Cashman Center. He thinks the property’s redevelopment could trigger a rebranding of the entire corridor.

City and tourism officials don’t necessarily disagree. Redeveloping Cashman provides benefits to both parties.

For starters, the aging facility has been a financial drain on the tourism agency in recent years. The large complex has been posting a net operating loss totaling $5 million per year, according to the LVCVA. On top of that, annual maintenance work reaches $213,000.

The convention and meeting space is priced at rental rates affordable to nonprofit organizations because the facility was intended as a community service, said Terry Jicinsky, senior vice president of operations for the LVCVA. As such, home and craft shows, indoor sports tournaments and dance competitions regularly use the space.

The tourism agency has justified the operating losses as not unlike those associated with parks and recreation departments: the value resides in the quality-of-life factor provided to the community, Jicinsky said.

But as the 51s seek an exit from Cashman, the LVCVA is “open and willing” to revert the property back to the city of Las Vegas for redevelopment, he said. The market has changed since Cashman opened 33 years ago, meaning other venues, such as the Henderson Convention Center or Pavilion, offer similar services, Jicinsky said.

Any money saved in that scenario would go toward LVCVA programs and the expansion of the Las Vegas Convention Center, he said.

“The end game is to look at the property as an economic development opportunity for the city of Las Vegas,” Jicinsky said. “It provides a very unique opportunity in an existing downtown corridor that doesn’t happen very often.”

The win for the city comes in the form of potential tax revenue. As it stands now, the city receives no tax money from Cashman Center; however, if the property was sold to private developers, it would go back on the tax rolls, said Scott Adams, the deputy city manager.

The land alone has been appraised at $20 million, he said.

Multiple redevelopment ideas for the area have surfaced over the years — some seemingly more realistic than others. A few of the more notable ones include:

• A zoo affiliated with “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin, who died after being attacked by a stingray. The animal park would have been modeled after Irwin’s 250-acre Australia Zoo, but an agreement with the city was never reached and the developers lost interest, Adams said.

• An indoor ski resort proposed by a group of investors from Dubai. They wanted to control the site while raising financing for the project, which seemed too speculative for the city and LVCVA, Adams said.

• An incubator for the drone and robotics industry called the Unmanned Aerial Robotics Resource Center. The center — one of several proposals the Las Vegas City Council received last year — would house company offices, testing space and manufacturing.

• A stadium to house a Major League Soccer team expansion in Las Vegas. Jason Ader, a New York-based investor and Las Vegas Sands Corp. board member, proposed a $350 million plan last year to turn Cashman Center into a soccer venue, suitable for an MLS team, with mixed-use development in the surrounding area.

City officials have indicated the most likely outcome is anchoring the site with a new sports facility, such as soccer, and surrounding it with mixed-use development.

In fact, the city’s forthcoming master plan states that the “Cashman District” could one day include a soccer stadium; a transit stop serving as a gateway into the area; and creative office and incubator spaces with ground-floor bars and restaurants.

It certainly wouldn’t happen overnight — just like the transformation of Fremont East has been years in the making.

“Redevelopment is an incremental process,” Adams said. “We take it one property at a time. If done right, (we) can create a real significant impact in that area.”

In the meantime, officials from the city and LVCVA have indicated they would likely extend the memorandum of understanding in its current form as discussions continue with the 51s. An extension of the agreement would need to be approved by both the Las Vegas City Council and the tourism agency’s board of directors.

That could happen as early as next month.

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As fans walked toward the ballpark for the Mets-Cubs game earlier this month, they passed retired casino signs stored in a parking lot behind the outfield.

They’re destined for the Neon Museum, which McCoy said was hoping to expand. He’s optimistic the inevitable redevelopment of Cashman Center will only yield good things for its neighbors, including the popular Neon Museum.

“I think at the end of the process, the city will get it right,” he said.

If all the pieces fall into place, would the fans be willing to cheer on the 51s in Summerlin?

“For sure,” said Stacey Sharman, who was enjoying the Big League Weekend game with friends. “That is a great move.”

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