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Forging a Frontier of their own


DC United's Jaime Moreno stands just outside Frontier Field's team locker rooms and looks down the tunnel where soccer players enter the stadium, in the foul territory behind home plate.

            His team just beat the Rhinos 2-0 in a friendly match, and Moreno is describing what it's like to play soccer on a baseball diamond: "It's terrible."

            The veteran forward scored, but he seems genuinely relieved that he'll probably never see Frontier Field again. Teammate Earnie Stewart agrees with Moreno's assessment. A 13-year veteran of the US national team, Stewart says he's never played on anything like Frontier. "Never in my life... It's a difficult surface."

            Stewart admits that during play he would run to areas where the field was easier to navigate. It's as if this was a game neighborhood kids played in the backyard, with a swing set and trees dictating where the action went.

But this was pro soccer, and the playing surface shouldn't have dictated anything. Frontier's field dimensions compound the problem. They're 10 yards shorter and 10 yards thinner than the typical pro soccer field. The confines often stifle the creativity that produces thrilling soccer. Rhinos fans must settle for frequent sideline scrums resembling a youth soccer game. Often, the best strategy is the woefully artless dump-and-chase.

            Yet, the Rhinos have flourished on one of US pro soccer's most inferior fields --- a field surprisingly planned that way. About 10 years ago, Minneapolis-based architecture firm Ellerbe Becket designed Frontier as a multi-use stadium that actually included soccer.

            But Mike Sabatini, who was the firm's project designer, points out that Frontier was primarily built for the Red Wings, and "if we had to compromise the sightlines, we would compromise them for soccer, not for baseball."

            Planners considered putting artificial turf in the stadium, which would have saved on surface wear-and-tear expenses, but they felt baseball needed grass. Moreover, there are 70-plus baseball dates, compared to fewer than 20 home soccer games.

            Nevertheless, grass really can't handle baseball and soccer during the same seasons. The facility would be better with a synthetic surface, much like the AstroPlay the Bills installed last year. But Frontier designers never considered AstroPlay because it was still being developed in the mid-'90s.

            Of course, a synthetic surface won't matter if PaeTec Park gets built. Ellerbe Becket saw the request for proposals for the Rhinos' stadium, but didn't pursue it because Monroe County was suing the firm in 1998 for Frontier's cost overruns --- a case both parties eventually settled.

            "We felt it was best to let it be," says Sabatini, who adds that sometimes there is unavoidable litigation associated with building stadiums, but that's usually with facilities in the $250-million range, not the $40-million range.

            Stuart Smith, Ellerbe Becket's communications director, laughs and says the reason litigation occurred was because "I think you had a county executive [Jack Doyle] who was running for office back then [in 1999]."

For the past six years, Rhinos owner Frank DuRoss has seemed as if he were running for office too, relentlessly drumming up support for a soccer-specific stadium. He started talking about it a few years after Frontier opened. The plan confounded many Rochesterians because Frontier was a multi-use stadium not even five years old.

            But DuRoss says that a soccer-specific stadium would attract fledgling Major League Soccer, the top US pro league, and make Rochester an MLS team. He says work on PaeTec will begin in August and be finished in time for the Rhinos to play home games in June 2005. MLS could conceivably come aboard in 2006 at the earliest.

            DuRoss and city officials held a January stadium groundbreaking in the Brown Square neighborhood, but little work has been done since then. There was a peculiar June delay when builders discovered that the site's water table lied above the depth that stadium designers wished to dig, prompting an emergency stadium redesign. That was after the site had been investigated for environmental concerns.

            This prompted more speculation that the Rhinos lacked the funds to begin construction. Previously, it hadn't looked good that they reduced their initial stadium plans by more than $20 million --- after New York State offered just a $15 million grant. That would have left the team on the hook for most of the $44 million facility. So the Rhinos scaled plans back to $22 million. The state still offered the $15 million. The city provided $3 million. The Rhinos are now responsible for providing the rest.

            Let's be realistic. The Rhinos are a second-tier US soccer team, not the Buffalo Bills. There's no billion-dollar A-League TV contract. They're certainly not a cash cow. In searching for stadium funding, the Rhinos seemed to wisely apply the sales technique of over-asking, so they could get the amount of money they really wanted. Then they adjusted appropriately. The initial plans appeared to be mere folly.

            Personally, DuRoss would seem wealthy. He made his fortune on Utica's Oneida Asbestos Removal, a company that was ranked 324th on Inc. magazine's 1988 top 500 fastest-growing, privately held firms.

            But not much is known about the Rhinos' finances. Being privately held, they're not obligated to disclose anything, even with an $18 million taxpayer windfall. Still, DuRoss says there was full disclosure to New York State in order to get the grant.

            "The people of the state were represented through their elected officials," he says.

            Theoretically, elected officials represent the people's interests. But officials don't always do that particularly well. The annual state budget debacle is proof.

According to a Dun & Bradstreet credit report, the Rhinos are categorized as being among the highest level of credit risks, with "33 percent of trade experiences indicating slow payment." Additionally, "payment experiences exist for this firm which are greater than 60 days past due."

            DuRoss doesn't deny any of this. "That's the financial challenges of playing at Frontier Field," he says. He rattles off a slew of things that aren't in the Rhinos' favor, and punctuates the argument by saying that the team gets just five percent of concession sales.

            "Frontier Field has been a decent home for a soccer team, but we couldn't survive there," he says.

            The Rhinos' lease stinks, but even if it didn't, they'd still want a stadium to attract MLS and play the prime dates that MLS plays. Currently, they only get the Red Wings' leftovers.

            If PaeTec Park is built, and MLS grants Rochester a club, DuRoss says the current Rhinos administration would operate the organization because it would own the stadium. It's not interested in sacrificing the Rhinos to be an MLS landlord.

            The Rhinos' departure would leave Frontier to the Red Wings and all the drum and bugle corps competitions that Monroe County foresaw when designers planned it. The Rhinos also list drum and bugle corps competitions as one of PaeTec's uses, so it could shape up to be a nastily delicious "war over the corps."

            Only one thing would seem certain: if Jaime Moreno and Earnie Stewart retire and pick up the drum and bugle, they'll perform only at PaeTec Park.