The story behind the “100% temporary” ballpark for Fort Bragg game

This is part two of our series on the upcoming MLB game at Fort Bragg, NC

The Major League game between the Braves and Marlins on July 3 will be played at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in a once-in-a-lifetime ballpark. Literally. That’s because the 12,500-capacity facility will be used only once. It will then be torn down, leaving only the playing field behind to be used by the recreation program for the service men and women and their families.

When Major League Baseball needed this unique facility designed, they went to the architects who are entirely or partially responsible for the majority of the big league parks in use today: Populous. For several reasons, this was no ordinary project for arguably the largest sports-architecture firm in the world. As a consequence, Populous didn’t rely on the team of architects in Kansas City that typically designs baseball stadiums. Instead, they turned to the firm’s Special Events Group.

“We’re actually serving as architects and event planners” for the upcoming game, explained Todd Barnes, a Principal at Populous. The relationship between Populous and MLB in event planning dates back to the 1999 All Star Game in Fenway, when the park’s cramped quarters caused the folks in MLB headquarters to question how they were going to pull off the Mid-Summer Classic there. Populous (back when it was called HOK) was called in to help.

Similarly, Populous worked with MLB on the All Star Game at Citi Field in 2013. For that, the firm’s Special Events Group “looked at all of the existing facilities and how to re-use different spaces for other All Star Game functions,” Barnes revealed. But since all of the facilities there were already in place, that makes the Fort Bragg project quite another story. “The difference with this project is that it’s a ground-up, design-and-build project, so we are the designer and architect on the project, as well as working on the event-planning side. Everything that’s being put in this ballpark right now is from the ground up. (And) it’s 100% temporary except for the playing field.”

You would think the one-time-use nature of the facility would make the design process radically different than Populous’ typical project, which is being built to last decades. Not so, says Barnes. “Every aspect and detail is the same or similar. We still have to look at the overall feel, inspiration and intimacy of the ballpark,” adding that the designers had to consider “the sightlines in the seating to make sure everyone has a good view. You’ve got to look at IT and make sure those compenents are going to be there, along with electrical.” He noted that even the clubhouses at Fort Bragg (which are huge tent structures) have to allow the two teams to have all of the functionality they require for any regular-season game. “So we have to provide the intention and detail of every aspect of a ballpark, whether it’s a temporary or permanent facility,” he concluded.

As far as the actual design goes, Barnes likened this park to a spring-training facility, and Populous has designed plenty of those. Both have a “good, intimate feel, where fans can get up close to where the players are. They can walk around the concourses freely, get food, beverage and merchandise, and enjoy themselves in a free kind of way.”

The ballpark, currently receiving its finishing touches, is located on an abandoned golf course on the base. “The site presented some positives in that it was flat (and) we knew it would have good drainage,” Barnes said. “It also had enough clear space to accommodate a ballpark with 12,500 seats.” On the down side, though, “the streets around the site are not large at all. They present some issues in being able to get the military to and from the game.”

The fact that the stadium itself will only be used once presents some interesting challenges. “With multi-day events like the Olympics, you have the opportunity to correct a problem,” he pointed out. “At an event like this or an All Star Game, you have one day to get it right, and it’s not even a whole day. If you find there’s a problem with your transportation system, you’ve got to get it fixed so the military can get into the stadium in a timely manner, get seated and situated so they can participate in the inspiration and the festivities.” One assumes the military men and women will want to be on time!

According to Barnes, the idea for this event came together last fall, and by January, Populous had created the initial design for the park. Ground was broken on March 3rd, and if you know anything about construction, a completion date just four months hence is almost unimaginable. “Trust me, we have faced some ferocious deadlines association with this (project),” Barnes said with a chuckle. The only way this is being finished on time is due to “the harmony and cohesiveness” of the partners responsible for the event. Those partners are: Major League Baseball; the MLB Players Association; BrightView, MLB’s right arm when it comes to playing fields in the U.S. and abroad; Populous; BaAM Productions on project management; ESPN; and the Department of Defense and its representatives at Fort Bragg (primarily Eric Hill, whom you’ll meet in the next installment in our series). Barnes said it has been “a great experience” working with all of these partners.

“All of us were joined at the hip from evaluating the site, to coming up with the concept and developing the schematic plans, to how the ballpark would be laid out, to design and implementation, including … reviewing generators, light towers, broadcast and electrical cabling (and) the clubhouses,” he continued. And with a sigh he added, “And it’s all temporary. There’s a million different ways it could all be put together, and that’s why it’s so important to have all of the details refined.”

Is the fact that the game is at night another challenge to pulling this off? “Yes, it would’ve been a lot simpler if it had been a day game,” Barnes divulged. “We would’ve saved all of the space we devoted to generators and lights, each being the size of a full tractor trailer. But it is North Carolina, where it’s humid. It could be a sunny, hot day to the extreme, so having an evening game makes it more relaxing for the fans.” And that lets fans around the country and world watch it on ESPN Sunday Night Baseball. Mark it on your calendar now.

And unlike the delayed and delayed ballpark in Hartford, this one at Fort Bragg will be done on time. “We’re expecting to be fully completed by June 27,” six days before the event. “And then the following day, it all starts to come down.”

Part one of this series is here.  Follow us on Twitter to see images of the July 3 event as it happens, as well as all games we attend. Photo above is courtesy of Populous.

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