Committee making a pitch for baseball in Phoenixville

Posted: March 04, 2011

Hot dogs, peanuts, and minor-league baseball - that's all Phoenixville is missing to complete its resurrection, say its boosters.

For the past six years, the borough of 18,000 has worked to revitalize its main thoroughfare, Bridge Street, with upscale restaurants, shops, and commercial properties and rebound from the loss of its steel industry two decades ago.

This week, local real estate developer and Phoenixville native Manny DeMutis, of the DeMutis Group, went one step further to add professional baseball to the mix.

DeMutis has helped pull together a committee of civic leaders determined to build a 3,800-seat ballpark on a portion of the 120-acre tract that was once home to the former Phoenix Iron Works company.

DeMutis, in an interview, said it will be a natural fit for Phoenixville, which has produced such pros as Mike Piazza of the New York Mets, John Smiley of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and Andre Thornton of the Cleveland Indians.

"Phoenixville has an incredibly long tradition in baseball," DeMutis said. "There's a gigantic baseball history. We want to put a dream out there and hope everyone wants to work really hard to get there."

DeMutis has enlisted the help of 20 local business owners, residents, and borough officials to assess the feasibility of reinvigorating the old steel site with a ballpark.

They hope to be more successful than a similar group that tried to bring a ballpark to West Chester. That effort came to naught earlier this month when West Chester Borough Council rejected the project as too costly.

There remain many hurdles to cross before the Phoenixville project is more than a developer's dream, but the work begins Wednesday when the committee meets for the first time. It will lay the groundwork for costing out and planning the project. DeMutis says the committee will also focus on finding a team to call the park home.

Among the unresolved questions is who will foot the bill - the public, corporate sponsors, or a combination?

There is also the issue of competition. Just a 45-minute drive along Route 422 in Berks County is First Energy Stadium, home of the Reading Phillies. The Phillies farm club attracts 450,000 patrons a year, according to Tommy Viola, director of public and media relations.

"We have people come from Philly, Berks County, Allentown and the Lehigh Valley, from all over," Viola said.

DeMutis is undeterred.

"The reason we want a team is because we've seen the success not only of the Reading Phillies, but also of the Wilmington Blue Rocks and Allentown Iron Pigs," DeMutis said. "It is a wonderful family experience, and all we have to do is look at those communities and see how baseball has impacted their economies."

The proposed stadium would occupy about 10 acres of the former steel mill site off Bridge Street. Part of the remaining land would suit commercial development.

The abandoned steel mill property has a long history, serving first as the site of the French Creek Nail Works, established in 1790. The nail factory changed hands at the dawn of the 20th century and was renamed Phoenix Iron Works.

The mill boomed throughout the century until steel production dropped off in much of Pennsylvania, and the operation closed its doors in the mid-1980s.

Since then, the property has been devoid of activity, a problem DeMutis wants to solve.

"My life's mission is to revitalize Phoenixville so that there is sustainable development that 100 years from now is still pertinent," DeMutis said.

Among those DeMutis has enlisted to help in his latest crusade are Ron Knabb, the architect of Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium, and Richard Kardon, former owner of Bryn Mawr music venue the Point, which closed in 2005. Kardon currently owns Point Entertainment, which promotes shows at the Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville.

Kardon is excited about the possibility of a stadium adding to the downtown nightlife and hosting music events.

"When I see the strides that town has made . . . I actually lived in Phoenixville at one point, and it was a very depressed city when the steel mill closed," he said. "To watch it grow into an entertainment district is amazing."

Phoenixville Borough Council representative Dave Gautreau, who serves on the committee, also can see baseball in the future.

"It would be a huge economic boom for our town," Gautreau said. "What do they say? 'If you build it, they will come.' "


Contact staff writer April Lisante at 215-854-2208 or alisante@phillynews.com.

 

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