The Ins and Outs Of Ballpark Village's Rookie Season
The World Series is over and the Cardinals will have to wait until next year to contend for another title.
But the Redbirds’ lack of championship success didn’t stop Joe Smart from venturing down to Ballpark Village this week to watch the Royals battle it out with the San Francisco Giants. Smart is hardly a newbie to Ballpark Village; he’s visited the entertainment complex 15 times.
So what keeps Smart coming back for more?
“It’s walking distance from the ballpark. Great atmosphere. You’ve got the best fans in baseball right here. Just great people to be around,” Smart said. “I was kind of a fan of the AT&T rooftop. And the Hall of Fame and how it all ties in. It was a great time. A lot of history.”
“Plus anyway, there’s an open bar up there,” he added, with a laugh.
Millions of people visited Ballpark Village during its rookie season, packing the venue's bars and restaurants before and after Cardinals games. It was nearly a decade in the making, as the multi-level complex went through numerous delays and revisions before materializing next to Busch Stadium.
But was Ballpark Village a success? And did it help downtown St. Louis? That depends on whom you ask.
“Catalyst for growth”
The idea of a Ballpark Village first came about in the late 1990s, when plans for a new Busch Stadium were being developed. The size and scope of the facility changed overtime before the current arrangement was set in stone.
After construction finished and the doors opened, Ballpark Village chief operating officer Jim Watry said about three million people visited Ballpark Village. It includes several large-scale bars and restaurants, as well as the Cardinals Hall of Fame.
“It’s gone really, really well,” Watry said. “We have a lot of really good people here working really hard. And it’s been very well-received. I mean, the most challenging thing is probably keeping up with the volume. And making sure that we deliver a quality hospitality experience every time from the parking gates to the time they leave.”
Waltry said he’s heard that Ballpark Village encouraged out-of-town visitors to stay longer in hotels, which he said assists other downtown attractions.
“I think it’s all additive. There’s nothing like this really in the near region,” Watry said. “You look at just the build-out with the 40-foot TV screen and the package we have here with the rooftop seating. It only adds to what’s going on downtown. And like I said: It brings people downtown and it’s a catalyst for growth.”
Missy Kelley, the chief operating officer of Downtown STL Inc., confirms that Ballpark Village “has drawn people down here from the region that would not have otherwise come.” She said the fact that it’s a new attraction perked people’s interest.
“I was amazed at the attention to detail, at the variety of things that they offered,” Kelley said. “It got a lot of positive media when it started and people wanted to see what it was about. So, I think that was part of the draw.”
“I think that really speaks to somebody having a vision and really wanting it to see it through and just being really patient,” she added. “I think that it really paid off.”
Ballwin resident Mary Chivetta said Ballpark Village is a vast improvement from the “grassy field” that was around Busch Stadium for years. She added it was a “good draw to the area.”
“I think it will bring more money to the area,” she said. “It adds to the St. Louis experience.”
St. Louis resident Norma West said she enjoyed the sprawling Fox Sports Live venue, which she said was great for watching sporting events. Still, she said, there were times the atmosphere was “far too loud.”
“Many things are appealing to me: the central open area, multiple choices for dining, the retractable roof, large format video screen,” West said. “The noise level is what I find most annoying and the single thing that would prevent me from just going to the ‘Village’ for a drink or late dinner.”
When asked about whether the venue can get too crowded during game days, Watry said: “We never want to be too crowded. It’s a very high demand space.”
“And our goal, in addition to delivering a world-class entertainment experience, is to also consistently deliver a great hospitality experience,” Watry said. “And you can do that when you’re packed or you’re at a fine-dining restaurant. But the hospitality and attention to detail and all the aspects that go into it make for having a great visit. They’re also super important.”
Still, Ballpark Village is arguably in competition with other bars and restaurants throughout downtown. And some of these businesses aren’t enthusiastic about what they’ve seen over the past few months.
Copia St. Louis general manager AmerHawatmeh said his Washington Avenue business is down 21 percent during certain points of the day, such as lunch and happy hours.
He said there’s little doubt Ballpark Village is sucking up money that could go to established bars and restaurants.
“That doesn’t make sense to me, nor does it seem fair to me in any capacity. I mean, competition is one thing. But this level is ridiculous,” Hawatmeh said. “A 100,000-square foot bar with multiple levels that is bastardizing and prostituting the business community of downtown? I mean, how do you build a whole downtown? Downtown isn’t just around Busch Stadium.”
Broadway Oyster Bar owner John Johnson said his eatery is faring better. In fact, he said, he’s getting a lot of business from Ballpark Village employees that want a bite to eat or a beer before they go to work.
“It’s a totally different atmosphere, it’s a totally different vibe,” Johnson said. “We’re very non-corporate, for example. We also appeal to customers who like to patronize locally-owned establishment here in the ballpark area.”
But Johnson said some of his neighbors aren’t doing as well and that bothers him, especially since Ballpark Village received a bevy of tax breaks while his compatriots had to put their livelihoods on the line. Johnson said he used his house, his mom’s house and his aunt’s house as collateral to purchase his restaurant.
“I know a lot of the places around us, they’re mom and pop places. They’re locally owned. They’re a family who put their life savings or their homes or that kind of thing up to have an establishment,” he said. “And now that establishment is in trouble, is struggling because of Ballpark Village.”
But neither Waltry nor Kelley feel Ballpark Village is harmful to surrounding businesses. Kelley said everybody knew Ballpark Village was coming for a long time — and it should have provided an incentive for businesses to aggressively appeal for customers.
For instance, she said Washington Avenue proprietors started a music initiative to get people to surrounding bars and restaurants.
“Certainly whenever competition comes into the market, it can do one of two things,” Kelley said. “It’ll either eat up the others that don’t have a fresh product, that aren’t marketing their product or who are kind of caught flat-footed — or whose product may have been marginal to begin with.
“I think the other thing that could happen is it spurs everyone to become better,” she added. “And I think that we’re seeing both.”
Can momentum stand?
The big question, of course, is whether the crowds that flocked to Ballpark Village during the season can be sustained.
Watry said Ballpark Village has a $1 million budget for events from now until Opening Day, 2015. He said that could include holiday celebrations, private parties and concert series.
“We knew we were going to have Cardinals fans. We knew we were going to be busy during the season,” Watry said. “Our goal was to attract families and lunch business — executive lunches, social lunches and things like that. And I think we’ve succeeded at that.”
How the facility deals with the offseason lull could be critical toward sustaining a customer base, Kelley said.
“I think if they continue to do some really family fun days and things that get people down there so they can see it, then some of the parents may say ‘Oh, I’m going to come back when I don’t have the kids and have sushi and then see the band that they have,’” Kelley said. “And I think they’re investing a lot in the entertainment.”
And as the venue becomes less new, Johnson said there are opportunities for other bars and restaurants to capture customers. It’s a sentiment that Hawatmeh shares.
“The last thing I want to see is Ballpark Village fail at this point,” Hawatmeh said. “Just like I don’t want to see Copia fail or any restaurant or bar in St. Louis fail. I do hope things balance out. I do hope that the St. Louis folks that are out there and spending their money, take consideration that ‘Oh my God, we are all excited and we all went there at one time.’ And things balance.”
This report contains information gathered through of our Public Insight Network. To learn more about the network and how you can become a source, please click here. To see the complete responses from PIN sources used in this report and others who helped inform our reporting, click here.