GREENSBORO, N.C. — There's a lot of buzz surrounding the future of the Greensboro Grasshoppers. Andy Sandler bought the team just over a year ago.
We'd heard he has big plans for the future. To better understand what might be in store for us, we drove 70 miles south to see some of his previous work.
Swinging cranes and construction workers are a common sight in downtown Kannapolis.
"For the next few years, it's going to be a lot of hammers and saws you're hearing but that's OK. That is progress," Mike Legg, Kannapolis City Manager said.
That progress has been at an all-time high in part of a town that, just a few years ago, was fading fast.
"There were about 90% vacancies downtown, so virtually, every space was empty,” Legg reflected.
Like other places, Kannapolis was trying to reinvent itself after a long history of textiles. "Largest sheet and towel manufacturer in the world at one point," Legg said.
In an effort to revitalize in 2018, Legg and other local leaders decided to move their Minor League Baseball team, the Kannapolis Cannon Ballers, into a new downtown stadium. The undertaking needed an owner with a vision. That’s where Andy Sandler came in.
"He sort of started engaging with us right out of the gate to refine the project and to really explore options with him specifically and what his objectives were as a new owner,” Legg said.
PHOTOS: New Greensboro Grasshopper owner making plans for the future
Within two years, and with the help of several partners, the stadium was built, sparking even more development. A new restaurant, brewery, and apartments are on deck. A hotel and 10 to 20-story building are also in the works.
Business near the stadium took off, too.
"The retail has exploded a lot faster than we thought it would. The construction projects have been leased up and the apartments have been filled up,” Legg said.
The adjacent West Avenue which once had 90% vacancy, trended the other way.
"Now we're at 90% occupancy for all the finished spaces," Legg added.
"The amount of growth has far exceeded what my expectations were,” said David Deal, owner of the nearby Latin restaurant, Sabor.
"We're very intrigued by the revitalization project especially the stadium as it came around and what it was doing for the downtown area."
Deal said he moved back here to his hometown two years ago to open this location.
"With 18 current locations of Sabor right now, we've popped off into the top three or four locations on an average year," Deal said.
There’s also a lot of activity inside the ballpark, even in the offseason.
"This is the get-outta-the-house place to go for the most part," said Kyle, who brought her two sons out to the park around lunchtime.
She said they take advantage of the ability to talk around the stadium grounds year-round.
"We love that it's open all day especially since they have a splash pad over there. That's super fun in the summertime," Kyle added.
Expect to see that kind of year-round community space in Greensboro, too.
"We've got a lot of plans for how we can activate the stadium in Greensboro in the same ways we've done in Kannapolis and in some different ways," said Andy Sandler, the new owner of the Greensboro Grasshoppers.
He bought the team just over a year ago. He admits, they’re limited by what they can do nearby since the stadium is mostly surrounded by existing buildings. One area where Sandler says we will see big changes is in the lot north of the stadium.
Sandler and his team are planning for retail and apartments, which he envisions will grow from there.
"A whole bunch of restaurants and bars in the couple of blocks around the stadium with hundreds of people living in apartments," Sandler said.
Sandler hopes the building is up in the next year or two, helping add to his hope for the future of Greensboro.
"One continuous entertainment district from this north side of the downtown all the way through the south side of downtown," he said.
On the field, plan to see a lot more than baseball. For example, Kannapolis has hosted 200 other events, including charity kickball with NASCAR drivers, concerts, and even a nationally televised dog show.
"It'll become a real destination year-round," Sandler said.
That’s welcome news to Steve and Jan Gingher, the owners of The Sage Mule.
"It seems to keep getting busier and busier so we're just trying to keep up," Steve Gingher said.
The popular brunch spot is about two blocks from the Hoppers stadium, and they’ve heard the buzz.
“We're excited for the growth, for the future of this area," they said.
"I'm not sure we could've asked for a better partner for what we're doing here to own this ballpark and be a partner in development," Legg said.
Sandler said we should expect constant changes and development. For example, he said they're planning a brand refresh next year.
He said they’re not changing the Hoppers name, only modernizing it and even adding a new mascot.