MESA, Ariz. -- Over the past few years, Mesa's multi-million dollar investment in a new Chicago Cubs Spring Training stadium has been the center of much attention, and if the public opening of the completed ballpark on Saturday is any indication of the draw it will have, city officials think things could be looking good.
The city estimates that more than 30,000 people showed up to the opening, dubbed Double Play at the Park, to see the new stadium, facilities and the redesigned Riverview Park sandwiched between Loop 202 and Rio Salado Parkway, west of Dobson Road.
"It's pretty exciting," Mesa Mayor Scott Smith said. "A great turnout. (It) even blew us away."
Smith said the amount of people in attendance surpassed what he and the city had anticipated for the event, which touted hot air balloon rides, dozens of vendors, live music, trolley and walking tours around Riverview Park and the stadium, as well as tailgating on the grass lawn out front of Cubs Park.
The new stadium seats nearly 3,000 more people than the club's previous spring training facility at Hohokam Park in Mesa, bringing its capacity to nearly 15,000 people and making it the largest in the Cactus League.
The increase in seating capacity could be fitting for a team that has regularly been among the highest in overall attendance and average attendance, according to figures from the Cactus League and the Maguire Company, which prepared attendance figures for the city of Mesa.
The new stadium will see its first ballgame action when the Chicago Cubs host the Arizona Diamondbacks on Feb. 27, a game the city expects to have a strong turnout.
"That game is going to be just total electricity, (and) from what I understand, they're almost sold out already," Smith said. "I'll be there and I wouldn't miss it for anything."
People standing in line to buy tickets on Saturday were told the opening game was sold out, and the final home game against crosstown rival Chicago White Sox on March 27 will likely sell out as well.
The new grounds feature Wrigley Field-inspired designs, a state-of-the-art workout facility, six other full-sized practice fields, more than 4,000 parking spaces and a major league locker room for the Cubs players.
"From the time fans enter the ballpark, they're really going to see this unique balance between elements that are reminiscent of Wrigley Field and the Chicago experience, and those elements that are uniquely Cactus League and the city of Mesa," said Justin Piper, general manager of Spring Training operations.
The investment into the new facilities, stadium and park was approved by Mesa voters in 2010, with a budget of $84 million for the new stadium, $15 million for infrastructure and another $7 million for the renovated Riverview Park, said Steve Wright, director of public information with the city of Mesa.
With the location of the grounds being near Loop 202, next to the Mesa Riverview shopping center and not far from Tempe Marketplace, Wright said it lends the stadium to easy access and visibility.
"This is probably the best-located Spring Training facility or training complex in the entire state," he said. "There's nobody that has the access. And the other unique thing is that we've got this amazing park that's tied to it, so it really is an ideal location, and the design is perfect."
As the city was analyzing and proposing the park, Mesa estimated in a 2010 report that if the Chicago Cubs left Mesa and were not replaced by another team, the overall attendance of the Cactus League would take a 22 percent hit, and over a 10-year period would lose $50 million in revenue.
Along with the Riverview and the Cubs park, the city also introduced a "paseo" that leads from the park to the shops at Mesa Riverview with the intention of drawing business to the nearby center.
One of the businesses in the center is Cactus Moon, a sports bar, and manager Jami Hankins said she expects to see plenty of new business coming over from the new park.
"I think it's going to be wonderful," she said. "We're a Cubs bar as well, so we're going to do a lot of promotion through them."
Hankins said the bar has had specials during Cubs games for years, even when the team was at Hohokam, but that now with the stadium in Cactus Moon's backyard, owners expect even more of a response.
Mesa City Manager Chris Brady said the development is not finished for the area around the stadium, and construction will start in a few months on a hotel they hope will be a convenient location for tourism and out-of-state fans coming to watch Spring Training.
"We already know along the paseo we have Sheraton Hotels will start construction right after Spring Training," he said. "So in a couple of years, they'll be up here and then we expect other businesses will continue to show up here on what we call Wrigleyville."
Janet Smith, a lifelong Cubs fan from Tempe, was at Saturday's event and said she was glad the city elected to keep the team in Mesa.
She said she has family that comes from out of town to see the Cubs play in Mesa, and she said she thinks keeping the team in the Valley with a new park is worth the money.
"I'm really glad they have those people who kept it here," she said. "I can't even imagine the city of Mesa coming close to losing this kind of revenue...It's crazy, I have relatives that come -- the money that's generated between hotels, car rentals, food...I'm astounded at the amount of people."
The Chicago Cubs came to Mesa in 1952, and celebrated their 50th anniversary in the Valley last year at Hohokam. The team has agreed to spend another 30 years in Mesa, and Wright said the city expects its more than $99 million investment to be easily returned over the lifetime of the deal.
"We believe this is an investment that will pay dividends for 30 years and more," he said. "There is such a long history from the 1950s. The Cubs have been playing here in Mesa on and off for decades. And so to be able to keep them here in Mesa, and the long-term relationship that we have with them, there is a great synergy between Mesa, Arizonans and the Cubs."
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