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West Sacramento home run: Success on the riverfront after 25 years of Sutter Health Park

A look back at West Sacramento's development since opening of River Cats stadium
A look back at West Sacramento's development since opening of River Cats stadium 03:15

WEST SACRAMENTO -- The city of West Sacramento and its riverfront, facing downtown Sacramento directly, both look a lot different present day than they did two decades ago.

The boom in development is thanks to Sutter Health Park, home of the Sacramento River Cats, for the past 25 years. 

Since the team's first home game on May 15, 2000, the River Cats have brought more than baseball to West Sacramento. 

Pitching the stadium

Warren Smith is now a successful sports franchise developer. His accolades in the Sacramento region include bringing both the River Cats and the Sacramento Republic FC to the region. 

In the late 1990s, Smith had no intention of dipping a toe into the cold water of solving Sacramento's stadium problem. Instead, one day, he dove in head first.

Entrepreneur and then-newspaper tycoon Kevin McClatchy had tried unsuccessfully to move the Oakland A's to Sacramento. He moved on, buying the Pittsburgh Pirates, and passed the buck to Smith to keep the dream of baseball alive in the region.

"He said, 'I can't do it for all these reasons, Warren. Why don't you do it?' It was the question that changed my life. I didn't have that type of money. I didn't know what to do, but he introduced us to some people right off the bat," Smith said.

The rest, as they say, is history.

"It was a time when a lot of people were comfortable with what the city was. I felt we could be so much better and do so much more," Smith said of Sacramento.

The late Art Savage, a local sports executive, bought the Vancouver Canadians, which would become the Sacramento River Cats.

Partnerships formed between Savage, Smith and a team of others, and talks began to find a location to build a baseball stadium for the team.

Out of eight options for locations, including six in Sacramento, the team landed on an industrial site along West Sacramento's riverfront, seeing then the potential that it had.

"We never looked at what West Sacramento lacked at the time. You had great leadership with great vision at the time, also; brand new city, but they had big goals and objectives. To their credit, they've accomplished a lot of that," Smith said.

It was the great view of Sacramento's skyline and the proximity to its downtown scene that won them over.

A citywide home run

Before the ballpark, it's no secret that West Sacramento's riverfront was hurting.

The Bridge District did not exist as it does today, and the area along the water was all industrial, packed with warehouses.

City leaders knew at the time that it was wasted potential, Mayor Martha Guerrero said, and they were already dreaming up ways to make it better.

Then, along came the River Cats.

"Sutter Health Park is the anchor for that riverfront, Bridge District area," Guerrero said.

The city in the past 25 years went from striking out to striking gold.

The Bridge District surrounding the stadium is now home to a host of new housing, restaurants, cafes, bars and a walkable riverfront—with room still to grow.

"And that's what West Sacramento has been working towards over all these years," Guerrero said.

The stadium, which was privately funded with no taxpayer dollars, is expected to be paid off in full in four years.

If you ask businesses that have popped up in the last two decades surrounding the stadium, it's paid off for them tremendously.

Businesses like Drake's The Barn say their success is closely tied to the stadium's success—and they are hungry for more.

"Any growth in this area helps our growth as well. We want to build up this side of West Sacramento—the housing here, the programming here at Drake's The Barn," said Joseph Lazoya, community events coordinator for Drake's. "The growing evolution of this whole side of West Sacramento is super important. Their growth is our growth really."

That looks like customers in steady numbers on what would normally be a slow Tuesday night, thanks to a baseball game right across the street from Drake's.

It's all thanks to those who threw out that first pitch.

"What do you think the stadium in these 25 years has given to West Sacramento that it didn't have before?" I asked Smith.

"Of course, there's all the nice physical stuff in what it's done. But what I think it's helped us do is foster more relationships and spend more time with people. And ultimately, more meaning in our lives, right?" Smith said. "It gives people something to do that is fun that they didn't have before."

Major league momentum

The Sacramento region scored with the recent news of the Oakland A's making a temporary relocation to Sutter Health Park for three seasons before their big move to Las Vegas.

The dream of playing major league ball on what was previously known as Raley Field dates back to day one.

"Part of the conversations were, in the very beginning, what if, what if, what if? There were some small things we did—upsizing sewer systems, things like that—so that we could potentially house a team in the future," Smith said.

The big league ambition is now a reality. Smith, now a resident of San Diego, looks at what is coming for the Sacramento region and beams with pride.

The three-year stint is a chance for the city of West Sacramento to once again cash in on the stadium's success.

"During this opportunity that we have in the next three years, we want to see growth happen on the riverfront," Guerrero said.

When the stadium was built and opened in the year 2000, it allowed the still-young city of West Sacramento to secure major grant funding that it couldn't get before.

It is why the Bridge District now exists and is thriving today.

Still, there is a lot of room to grow with some still-empty space and the possibility of new development not only focusing on the riverfront but beyond.

"What we would like to have is the hotel that is planned there to be built. It will provide an opportunity for a convention area, more entertainment, opportunities for people to come in and do businesses," Guerrero said. "It's this growth coming out of our Bridge District and transitioning to our Washington District that continues our entire riverfront area. Then, moving into West Capitol Avenue so people feel like they have a place they can call downtown."

The goal is that the momentum of having major league ball played at the park for three years will fast-track some big city projects.

Two projects that Guerrero would like to see secure the needed grant funding include revitalizing the I Street Bridge corridor and bringing a light rail station to West Sacramento.

City leaders are also working on what could be a measure on the November ballot to improve the walkability and bike-ability for pedestrians throughout West Sacramento.

So, the question becomes: if after 25 years of stadium success prompting riverfront revival in West Sacramento, what will the city look like after the next three years of forward momentum when the A's arrive?

Guerrero, Smith and the residents of the Sacramento region, it's safe to say, are excited to find out.

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