May 11, 2021 (updated)
Photo: Marcus Rainey
Professional baseball will return to Gastonia for the first time in 25 years this May when the Honey Hunters take the field at FUSE District Stadium. The Spinners, Rangers, Cardinals, Rockets, Pirates, Rippers, and King Cougars have all called Gastonia home at one time or another since 1923, but this time the Honey Hunters will represent the city in the eight-team Atlantic League.
The team will be at the center of what city leaders hope will be a revitalized downtown core, feeding off the energy of the explosive growth down Interstate 85 in Charlotte. They see the recently completed Franklin Urban Sports and Entertainment District as the future of Gastonia, which has often been cast as the less glamorous little sister to the Queen City. The recent SNL sketch featuring Kenan Thompson as Hornets star LaMelo Ball’s father referring to Charlotte as the “Gateway to Gastonia” is typical of the jokes that often surround the 13th largest city in North Carolina.
That’s a perception that Honey Hunters team owner and CEO Brandon Bellamy, founder of community-driven real estate company Velocity, plans to change.
“We want to show that Gastonia is a fantastic place and we love them, and that we’re going to be great hosts,” he said. “We want them to commune and create some memories together. And I think that they’re going to be pleasantly surprised about how fast Gastonia is growing, and that it might not be what people might have thought that it was.”
Bellamy, who purchased the team right before the pandemic changed everything, is also not quite the kind of owner you might have expected.
“I grew up in Maryland just outside of Washington DC,” Bellamy said. “I hadn’t really ever gotten into baseball. I’d grown up focused on boxing, that was more my sport. And I never really followed baseball as much, but my dad loved it. My mom told me that my grandfather played, but I didn’t have a connection to it directly.”
Bellamy had actually never even been to Gastonia until recently, and the path toward owning a baseball team kind of found him. He was attending a groundbreaking for a Velocity project in D.C., and a mentor of his came along with a good friend who had been pursuing minor league baseball opportunities. Bellamy was intrigued by the economic and real estate development potential associated with the sport and, in October 2019, he stopped in Gastonia on a trip to Florida.
“I came here and just started walking around and just meeting random people on the street and asking them about Gastonia, what it meant to them and how they felt about it,” he said. “I got some pretty crazy answers but I felt a great vibe here. My CFO and CAO thought I was nuts for doing this!”
Velocity already had a track record of focusing on community development and investment in areas that often slide under the radar, and Bellamy saw the development energy coming towards Gastonia from Charlotte.
“If you have a sports and entertainment anchor it could really activate this energy, but you need something that plays a lot of games. Baseball is our anchor, and you’re going to see this model now playing out other places a lot more,” he said.
Bellamy intends to take the energy created by the Honey Hunters and use it as connective tissue to link residents with each other and with Loray Village and other growing areas around the city. His aim in the beginning is to consolidate the entertainment dollar of a 20-mile radius around the FUSE district. The stadium and the surrounding private development will generate an estimated revenue of over $75 million, and that economic growth is expected to create new jobs and benefit Gastonia as a whole. The $26 million FUSE district aims to create a pedestrian-friendly corridor that encourages use of public transit, and Bellamy plans on sweetening the deal by adding a hotel, ground floor retail, and affordable housing units to the facility in the future.
He also takes the “entertainment” part of FUSE quite seriously; the stadium will host diverse events such as concerts, festivals, stand-up comedy, conferences, weddings, birthday parties, and whatever else may come along.
“Retail is changing, right?” he said. “In order to live, work, and play you need pedestrian traffic but you also need quality entertainment and you need something that will bring what you need to you.”
In addition to helping reimagine the core of Gastonia, Bellamy is also becoming part of history. He is the first Black majority owner of a professional baseball club since Tom Lewis briefly owned the South Atlantic League’s Savannah Cardinals from 1986-87, and one of the few African American majority owners in team sports. In the vaunted days of the Negro Leagues several Black owners ran teams, but the leagues folded when Jackie Robinson broke into the majors and pulled the audiences to Major League Baseball. There is a nod to Black history within the Honey Hunters moniker; in addition to embodying the traits of fearlessness and resilience displayed by the honey badger itself, the name pays tribute to another Black trailblazer. Gastonia’s first freed slave and first Black landowner was Ransom Hunter, who owned much of the area that forms present day Mt. Holly.
During a time when interest and participation among African Americans in baseball is on the decline, Bellamy is well aware of the potential impact of the distinction but his focus is on the overall big picture. “I’m promoting tribal affinity, right? But it’s not based on race. It’s not based on class. It’s not based on any of those things,” he said. It’s based on, do you believe in hope? Do you want to create opportunities for yourself, seek them out? If that’s the type of person that you are, then you’re part of my tribe. This is the community’s ballpark, the community’s team. And that’s all the community, no matter who you are.”
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Gastonia is buzzing about their new neighbors. A city on the edge of economic and cultural expansion, the energy surrounding Bellamy and the team is a welcomed anticipation. In a time when the state of North Carolina and baseball itself are changing with the times, many surrounding cities will be watching to see if the sport can help spur the rebirth of downtown cores. Visitors to Gastonia may soon find that their old perceptions don’t match up as much as they once did, and the Honey Hunters want to be a part of the new narrative. History is being made 22 miles north of Charlotte, and a city that has often been dismissed as an afterthought is ready to take center stage.