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To meet MLB's standards, Durham approves $10M in upgrades to Bulls' ballpark

Florida State's Mike Salvatore is forced out at second base as Louisville infielder Tyler Fitzgerald tags the base.
Gerry Broome
This file photo from May 2018 shows Florida State and Louisville facing off at the ACC Baseball Tournament at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park in Durham, N.C.

Durham's City Council recently approved additional expenditures to upgrade the Durham Bulls Athletic Park.

The total price tag for the upgrades is around $10 million, and the city is on the hook for most of it. The city owns the stadium and leases it to the Bulls. The Bulls will contribute about $1 million toward the upgrades.

Originally, the estimated budget for the project was around $5.2 million in 2020, but construction costs have increased during the pandemic.

Durham has until 2025 to complete upgrades to the Durham Bulls Athletic Park to keep them in compliance with Major League Baseball. It's a requirement by the MLB for minor league teams to upgrade their facilities. If they don't, the Bulls could lose their MLB affiliation.

And that threat is not a hyperbolic one. Since 2019, more than 40 minor league teams have lost their MLB affiliation.

Upgrades include women's locker rooms, a new batting tunnel, multiple batting cages, office reconfiguration and larger clubhouses for both teams. Construction on the various upgrades is expected to begin this August and finish up in April 2023.

Durham Mayor Pro-Tempore Mark-Anthony Middleton says the Bulls aren't going anywhere.

"They've been a long-standing part of the DNA of Durham,” Middleton said. “The question is, have they generated an economic activity direct and residual in terms of impact on jobs? More than $2 million? That's a very short discussion."

According to documents obtained by the News & Observer, the Durham Bulls generated a total economic impact of $48.5 million in 2019.

“The Durham Bulls are here to stay,” Middleton said. “They are not only part of Durham's storied past and a part of the fabric of Durham they are a major economic force in our city and indeed our region.”

Professional baseball has been played in Durham off and on as far back as 1902. After a nine-year hiatus, this current iteration of the Durham Bulls began playing games in 1980 as an Atlanta Braves affiliate in the Carolina League. In 1988, the Bulls gained a bit of international fame, thanks to the film “Bull Durham,” a romantic comedy starring Kevin Costner as Bulls’ catcher Crash Davis.

In 1998, the Bulls became an affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays and moved up to the Triple-A level of minor league baseball, which is just one level removed from the major leagues. The Bulls are still with the Rays in Triple-A ball today.

The Durham Bulls Athletic Park opened its doors in 1995 and seats about 10,000 fans. It originally cost around $18.5 million to build, and last received major renovations in 2014.

The park has also hosted games for Duke and the ACC. The Bulls and the Charlotte Knights recently made a joint pitch to the ACC to alternate as site hosts for future ACC Baseball Tournaments. Charlotte hosted the tournament in 2021 and 2022, and a study by the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority estimated that fans spent $5.4 million in Charlotte in 2021 on meals, hotels and more.

Naomi P. Brown joined WUNC in January 2017.
Mitchell Northam is a Digital Producer for WUNC. His past work has been featured at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, SB Nation, the Orlando Sentinel and the Associated Press. He is a graduate of Salisbury University and is also a voter in the AP Top 25 poll for women's college basketball.
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