Omaha’s Rosenblatt Stadium disappearing piece by piece


July 12th, 2012

Omaha, NE – Over the next six months, Omaha’s Rosenblatt Stadium will be demolished. Neighboring business owners and residents in South Omaha continue to have mixed emotions as demolition of the iconic structure begins in earnest.

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On a recent, sweltering summer day outside Omaha’s Rosenblatt Stadium, people streamed through its parking lot, hardly noticing the empty edifice on their way to the nearby Henry Doorly Zoo. But it wasn’t always like that. For six decades, from its opening in 1948 through 2010, Rosenblatt hosted a series of minor league teams, the College World Series, fireworks shows and concerts.

Calvin Sisson of the Omaha Zoo Foundation stands outside Rosenblatt Stadium. (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Even with the iconic “Road to Omaha” statue gone, the brightly-painted beams of its plaza area still seem to beckon visitors, but a cyclone fence surrounding the stadium keeps any would-be visitors out. Calvin Sisson of the Omaha Zoo Foundation, which now owns Rosenblatt, said the intact exterior appearance is deceiving.

“This has been up now for almost a year past any activity. And it needs to come down,” Sisson said of the stadium. “This is a classic case of what happens to a facility when there is no care. The public got to see what happens to grass when you don’t water what used to be a pristine lawn. What they don’t see is when you remove seats and you remove other assets, and water begins to come inside, what happens to a facility. And that’s what we have now today.”

The Rosenblatt sign sits behind a security fence, but will be reused in a new park at the zoo. (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Sisson said pieces of Rosenblatt have been disappearing slowly, and reappearing elsewhere.

“Over the last year, we have been salvaging a lot of the material that’s been reused all over Omaha, the state of Nebraska and adjoining states,” he explained. “We have Rosenblatt seats that have made their way to Omaha Northwest High School, to Wahoo, Nebraska; Ponca; Rapid City, South Dakota; St. Joe, Missouri; and all ports in-between. In fact, St. Albert’s school in Council Bluffs, … the entire outfield bleachers went over to their football stadium for redevelopment.”

Now, the final work of demolishing the stadium is beginning. But Sisson said it won’t be what some might expect.

“You’re not going to see an implosion. You’re not going to see a large ball show up,” he said. “It’s going to be a systematic removal partly because there’s a lot of value in the assets that are here.” Those assets, like steel and aluminum, along with doors and ticket windows, will be taken away over the next six months.

Pros and cons for nearby residents

Starsky’s bar on 13th Street, with Rosenblatt in the background at right. (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Meanwhile, across 13th Street in the surrounding neighborhood, Kristi Todorovich, who owns Starsky’s bar with her husband, Ray, has been dealing with the loss of business from Rosenblatt for a couple of years. She said having the physical structure disappear will be just confirm the change.

“It’ll be very … real when all of a sudden it doesn’t exist anymore. When it’s really gone. That’ll kinda be the final … goodbye,” she said.

However, she added, “We’ll take everything in stride as we always do, and keep going forward as best we can.”

Kristi Todorovich, who owns Starsky’s bar with her husband, Ray, has been dealing with the loss of business from Rosenblatt for a couple of years. (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Todorovich said Starsky’s is paying more attention to its food offerings, and benefitting from out-of-town visitors who still come for the neighborhood bar feel. One thing she isn’t considering is following the College World Series downtown.

“Honestly, we’re just blue-collar kind of people that don’t have millions of dollars to invest in a location downtown,” she said. “The rug just kind of went downtown under our feet, so we’re left to stay here and do the best we can with what we have.”

Not everyone in the neighborhood is mourning the stadium’s passing. Standing in front of his house on 13th Street, Kevin Lilla said it’s a mixed bag.

“I miss the Omaha Royals, I guess, more than anything,” Lilla said.

During the College World Series, “It got so crazy down here that I don’t really miss that,” he added, recalling people “littering and doing stuff in the driveway … you know, the respect thing.”

But Lilla acknowledged a lot of people miss the upside, like charging people to park in their yard, or selling cold drinks.

“I’m sure a lot of people made a lot of money doing that for a long time,” he said.

Irene Cuevas outside her home on 13th Street said the stadium is now just a shell. (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

In her house just up and across the street, Irene Cuevas, mother of former Rosenblatt groundskeeper Jesse Cuevas, points to another development in the neighborhood.

“Our church, St. Rose, used to take in like $27,000 during the College World Series,” she said; now, it gets nothing. “We’re closing our church next year.”

Deacon Tim McNeil of the Omaha archdiocese acknowledged that the church used to make a lot from Series patrons. But he said losing that revenue wasn’t a factor in deciding to close, a decision that had more to do with the changing demographics of South Omaha.

Losing a symbol

Even Cuevas suggested that with the Rosenblatt closed, its physical disappearance won’t be that significant.

“It’s not the stadium anymore; it’s just a shell. There’s nothing in there that we can relate to anymore,” she said.

Still, the Zoo Foundation’s Sisson predicted the demolition will have an impact.

“What I’ve heard from most people is, when they come back into Nebraska from Iowa, they get across the river and they’re always used to seeing that sign – the Rosenblatt sign – facing the interstate,” he said. “I think when that comes down, I think that will have probably the biggest emotion for the public.”

That should happen by the end of the year. But Sisson said the sign, and Rosenblatt’s memory, will be preserved. While much of the stadium site will be used to expand the zoo’s parking, there are also plans for a park called “Infield at the Zoo.” It will have home plate where the original was, along with the foul poles to give sense of space. There will be a little-league sized infield where kids can run the bases, and dugout picnic shelters.

Sisson said the Infield will be a green space in the midst of sorely needed new parking.

“That’s our focus, certainly, is, How can we improve the zoo?’ We have a million and a half visitors a year. We really want this to be a nice location,” he said.

“But once a year when the baseball fans roll in for the College World Series, maybe it’s a place where they’ll come and remember as well.”

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