How Baseball Revitalized a Venerable Mill Town
A 20th-century boomtown, once a top manufacturer of US-made goods, becomes a post-industrial shell of its former self. Decades later: empty downtown streets, few remaining employers, bull-dozed buildings. Then, rising from the ashes, a vibrant community revitalization around a minor league baseball stadium.
“Build it and they will come is both an aspiration and an obligation.”
Baseball might not seem like the economic catalyst Kannapolis, N.C. needed to the uninitiated. Yet for this former mill town, once the top global producer of towels, baseball is driving the community’s revitalization thanks to a foundation of private-public partnership. Kannapolis is once again a vibrant economic hub symbolized by an athletic, mustachioed superhero: Boomer Baller, the mascot of the Kannapolis Cannon Ballers. When the invitation came to join Kannapolis’s revitalization project, Andy Sandler, CEO of Temerity Capital Partners, and now Cannon Ballers owner, says, “build it and they will come is both an aspiration and an obligation.”
Waiting for the Pitch
In August 2018, Kannapolis city leaders had a problem. After nearly a decade of achieving public support for their vision to build a state-of-the-art minor league ballpark, they were absent one baseball team owner to sign the lease for the stadium on the eve of a public bond offering. The anchor of the city’s redevelopment plans of the old Cannon Mill site in the city’s center was suddenly hanging on by a shred of hope. Enter Andy: entrepreneur, developer, and lifelong baseball player and fan. Even though he hung up his spikes at age 50, the call for a new owner from Kannapolis and the South Atlantic League “was serendipity,” he explains.
In a conversation with sons Michael and Jake Sandler, Andy observed the remarkable transformation of the Navy Yard district in Washington, D.C., following the completion of National’s stadium. He reflected on the chance to participate in a similar redevelopment project: one in a smaller city with a minor league baseball stadium. The ever-optimistic entrepreneur, Andy just needed to convince the more practical (and skeptical) sons that they could pull off a project of this scale. “We know baseball, we know business operations, and we know real estate development. We can do this,” Andy recalls sharing with his sons. The family greenlighted the project, and Temerity Capital Partners had a new line of business: Minor League Baseball and community redevelopment.
The investment came with high risk and responsibility. “The City of Kannapolis handed us the keys to a $52 million stadium that the local community counted on as the epicenter of its economic revitalization,” Andy says. “And the South Atlantic League approved us to assume ownership of a troubled baseball team that was becoming challenging for the league.” Temerity Capital Partners, however, doesn’t get its name from avoiding risk. Instead, the family learned how to lean into and optimize risks. “We learned how to get comfortable taking risks with our other businesses where the consequences of failure is a significant loss of money. With this project, we are also assuming stewardship of a public trust.”
Swinging for the Fences
While the new stadium began to emerge from the ground, the first order of business required a strong leadership team of experienced baseball executives. Delivering on its promise of assistance, the South Atlantic League suggested Scotty Brown, long-time Minor League Baseball executive and – as fate would have it – a resident of Kannapolis, N.C. Scotty joined the team as its Operating Partner, and Matt Millward followed as its General Manager. Recognizing the importance of community relations, Andy teamed Scotty with his Chief of Staff, the “she can do anything” Alicia Amling as the team’s Operations Director, and Temerity Baseball was off and running.
Temerity Baseball pushed through the 2019 baseball season in the old stadium while enrolling its fans into the new vision for Kannapolis baseball: better food, better entertainment, and better fan culture. It turned out to be everything the fans were hoping for. Andy, in the meantime, began to rebuild the team’s relationship with its Major League affiliate, the Chicago White Sox. After meeting with White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, a new partnership and friendship between the two teams (and its owners) continue to flourish.
A new vision for baseball in Kannapolis also meant finding a new name, mascot, and brand to match. With the help and talents of Dan Simon and Simon Studios, the Kannapolis community voted and selected to bring home the Cannon Ballers and their new faithful mascot, Boomer Baller, paying homage to the area’s legacies: the Cannon family, Cannon Mills, and Dale Earnhardt’s signature racing helmet and mustache.
Following the Cannonballers Big Reveal, the team geared up to ensure the stadium was ready for opening day in April 2020. The group added an elaborate children’s play area and splash pad to the grounds, state-of-the-art player facilities, and thoughtfully-designed entertainment spaces for baseball season and year-round for weddings, meetings, and other social gatherings. As a sold-out Opening Day in April approached and plans for a human cannonball, fireworks, and other festivities fell into place, COVID had other plans.
Pitching Out of a Jam
In early 2020, five years after the city’s decision to bet on baseball, Atrium Health Ballpark opened in the heart of downtown Kannapolis. There were 5,000 seats to fill, new storefronts, and a mayor and owner ready to see the fruits of their labor. MLB schedules were set, and the Cannon Ballers prepped for the season opener in their new home. Then, COVID arrived, and soon MLB shuttered the 2020 season.
The Cannon Ballers team weighed their options: COVID might send baseball into hibernation, but did it need to close the stadium along with it? Andy decided the community’s long-term goals took precedence. Together with the city and their development partners, Temerity Baseball and the Cannon Ballers worked collectively to deliver foot traffic to the budding downtown. The stadium remained open for use as a public park, business district, and entertainment center. While the field lay dormant, the team ran concessions, opened the merchandise shop, and turned the right field bar into a safe outdoor destination on weekends. Stadium workers remained employed and the grounds became a much-needed diversion from the isolation of COVID.
Before a single baseball game was played, more than 175,000 people visited the stadium.
Looking back, Andy sees the silver lining: “COVID catalyzed our bond with the city and its residents.” Before a single baseball game was played, more than 175,000 people visited the stadium. Its vast space created opportunities for COVID-safe activities, including health walks, outdoor dining, bingo, trivia, communal remembrances for veterans and their families, and COVID vaccination stations. For Kannapolis Mayor Darrel Hinnant, while it wasn’t season they hoped for, as he told MILB.com, “the result—an active, thriving downtown—is the same.”
Kannapolis Tomorrow: It’s a Beautiful Day for More than Baseball
The City of Kannapolis and Temerity Baseball built it and they came. The 2021 season was a roaring success with attendance exceeding already lofty expectations and Cannon Baller gear selling at a record pace. In addition to a new stadium, a new owner, a new team brand and a vibrant and committed fan base; cranes are in the air and new retail establishments, restaurants and a brewery line are being built around the stadium. And much more to come.
It’s not surprising to anyone that knows him that when asked to reflect on progress to date, Andy redirected to the long view: “Talk to me in three years when we have completed our stadium adjacent projects, added hundreds of units of housing, built 7,800 square feet of additional retail, can grab a drink from Towel City Tavern, and guests are staying at a new Marriott-branded hotel around the corner. That is when we can truly look into the eyes of the city’s leadership that worked so hard to execute their new vision of Kannapolis and say, Temerity held up its end of the deal.”
As for what’s next for Temerity Baseball? “I’m at the point in my life,” Andy says, “where I want to focus on businesses that I enjoy. I love the minor league baseball business, I love our relationship with the Chicago White Sox, and I love the business climate in North Carolina. I think we have the team in place at Temerity Baseball to replicate our Kannapolis experience in another North Carolina community. We hope to do that shortly.”
And, keeping true to his word, on Wednesday, January 5, Temerity Baseball acquired its second team, the Greensboro Grasshoppers based a High-A affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
In the official announcement, Andy remarked that “Greensboro has been blessed with a first-class minor league ballpark, a committed local ownership group and a talented front office staff focused on the fan experience and community partnership.”