Omaha now committed to 24,000-seat downtown baseball stadium

OMAHA, Neb. -- In hopes of keeping the College World Series through at least 2030, Omaha is moving forward with plans for a new downtown baseball stadium.

The Division I championship has been played at Rosenblatt Stadium since 1950, but the plan recommended by city leaders would make the 2010 College World Series the last one played on the venerable hilltop site in south Omaha.

Mayor Mike Fahey and other city leaders unveiled their plan for a 24,000-seat stadium to the public on Wednesday, a day after meeting with NCAA officials in Indianapolis.

There has been strong sentiment in some quarters to keep the CWS at its traditional home, but Fahey said a new stadium is necessary for Omaha to land a long-term agreement with the NCAA. The current contract ends after the 2010 College World Series.

The NCAA issued a statement that was supportive of Omaha's efforts but offered no promise of a contract extension.

"To use baseball terms, it's time to step up to the plate and swing for the fences," said Jack Diesing Jr., president of the CWS' local organizing committee.

The city estimated it would cost $128 million to build a new stadium, not including about $12 million to retire Rosenblatt debt, and $73 million to renovate Rosenblatt.

With either option, cost to the public would be about $59 million, stadium oversight committee chairman Ken Stinson said. It's projected that far more private funding could be secured for a new stadium than a renovation.

Fahey is proposing a 1-percentage point increase on the city hotel tax -- already among the highest in the nation -- and a $2 surcharge on car rentals to help pay off 20-year bonds.

The proposed stadium would sit on land now occupied by Qwest Center parking lots. The governing body of the arena and convention center has voiced opposition to the stadium site, but Stinson and Fahey say they are confident it will sign off on the plan.

The College World Series has steadily grown in popularity since coming to Omaha from Kalamazoo, Mich., in 1950. Total attendance was 17,805 in 1950, compared with 300,702 last year.

The event has brought invaluable national attention to the city. The "Road to Omaha" has become a rallying cry throughout college baseball and is the slogan for ads promoting ESPN's television coverage. There are tangible benefits, as well: an estimated $41 million for Omaha's economy in 2007.

Rosenblatt has undergone $39 million in improvements since 1987, but the facility has few fan amenities, tight concourses and cramped clubhouses.

Fahey said upgrades to Rosenblatt Stadium were promised to the NCAA as part of initial contract extension discussions in 2006. The city began considering a new stadium on the NCAA's recommendation.

A stadium committee that formed last fall looked at nine possible sites -- eight downtown and the other at the Rosenblatt location.

The Rosenblatt site was eliminated largely because the College World Series would be displaced for at least one year and the Triple-A Omaha Royals, who also play at the stadium, for some or all of two seasons. Some nearby homes also would have to be torn down.

A downtown stadium would be closer to new hotels and restaurants and feature open concourses, seating closer to the field, as many as 28 suites and a longer life, said Martin DiNitto of sports venue designer HOK.

Tentative plans call for an interactive fan-fest area just east of the stadium, which could be expanded to 35,000 seats if necessary, DiNitto said.

Failure to gain a contract extension from the NCAA would allow other cities to bid for the College World Series. Indianapolis, Oklahoma City and Orlando have been mentioned as possible suitors if the event becomes available.

The NCAA originally had given Omaha an April 30 deadline, but Stinson said there would be some flexibility, as long as the city shows progress on its stadium plan.

Stinson said it's hoped the Omaha Royals and Creighton University baseball teams would use the stadium, but no agreement has been reached with either entity.