Whitecaps begin rebuilding process after fire


Whitecaps officials say the stadium will be ready for the team’s April 8 home opener at Fifth Third Ballpark. Photo by Mike Nichols

Neither a blazing inferno nor a polar vortex can stop the West Michigan Whitecaps.

Officials of the minor league team, the Class A affiliate of the Detroit Tigers, say they will be ready for the home opener April 8, despite a Jan. 3 fire that gutted a portion of Fifth Third Ballpark and last week’s record-cold temperatures, which hampered the restoration process that got underway immediately.

“The game will, for sure, be played there. It may not be as pretty, but we will be open for business,” said Mickey Graham, director of marketing and media relations for the Whitecaps.

“This process will probably take into the season to finish up.”

The fire, which destroyed the stadium suite level along the first base line, was first reported at about 11 a.m., Friday, Jan. 3. Plainfield Township Fire Chief David Peterson told the Associated Press a space heater being used by a work crew likely started the fire. Graham said he had not yet seen the report, but did not suspect the fire was caused by foul play. No injuries were reported — except maybe broken hearts.

“It was definitely a sad day for everyone involved at the ballpark, especially our ownership,” Graham said, referring to Lew Chamberlin and Dennis Baxter. “They spent almost a decade bringing the ballpark to the area. It was a sad day, but they’re resolved to come back bigger, stronger and better.”

Thefire destroyed the suites, leading to a partial roof collapse, as well as debris, smoke and water damage to the main concourse level, concession stands, clubhouse, some storage areas and possibly part of the grandstands, Graham said. The main office, where a bulk of the employees worked, had some water and smoke damage, and another office, which housed two employees, was destroyed.

For now, the plan is to install a makeshift office in the Pepsi Stadium Club, located in centerfield, where about 30 employees will continue working, Graham said.

“We’re still working on it, but they’re saying the offices will be about four weeks to get it done,” he said. “Hopefully by the first part of February, we’re back in our offices.”

Belfor Property Restoration will do the cleaning and restoration of the offices. Wolverine Building Group will rebuild the destroyed sections, Graham said, and Progressive AE will serve as the architectural firm.

Graham acknowledged some of the rebuilding might involve minor changes and additions to the ballpark but couldn’t say what, specifically.

Brian Steinberg, project manager at Wolverine Building Group, said several things are still being worked out, but he, too, refused to confirm details.

“We have a long, 20-year history with the Whitecaps, building the original stadium and all additions to date,” Steinberg said. “Wolverine will be the construction manager during the rebuilding process. … The stadium will be open for baseball on opening day.”

The cost to rebuild and restore the stadium is currently unknown, Graham said, but the Whitecaps expect insurance will help with the costs. He said meetings to assess the damage with representatives from insurance carrier Wells Fargo were scheduled for early last week, but the bitter winter weather scotched those plans.

The Whitecaps just finished their 20th year in West Michigan, and Graham said community support is pouring in. Within a few hours of news of the fire hitting social media, a Facebook page titled “Rebuild Fifth Third Ballpark” popped up. The page already has more than 3,000 likes.

“I heard someone started it and that’s awesome, but I haven’t seen it yet. The outpouring we’ve got since the fire, it’s been overwhelming,” he said.

The business support, particularly from Wells Fargo, Wolverine and Belfor, has been incredible, Graham said. As the rebuilding process continues, there might be a day when the community could pitch in and get their hands dirty in the restoration, he said, but for right now, crews are trying to assess the situation and salvage any useful items.

“We’re so new to this disaster, we need time to figure out what we’re doing, to get our plan together,” Graham said. “We’ll let the community know if there is to be a community day along those lines.”

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