In the last five years, Vern Stenman and Conor Caloia have had a hand in refurbishing old stadiums around Wisconsin.
Now they're ready to take on a similar challenge closer to home.
Big Top Baseball — a partnership that includes longtime Madison Mallards executives Stenman, Caloia and founder Steve Schmitt — is in final negotiations with the city of Madison over a lease contract through which Big Top will manage operations of Breese Stevens Field on the near east side.
That agreement, to run through 2022, is scheduled to be considered by the city's Board of Park Commissioners on Wednesday, and it could progress to the Board of Estimates next Monday and to the City Council on Dec. 1.
Besides Madison, Big Top operates Northwoods League baseball teams in Green Bay, Wisconsin Rapids and Kenosha. In the latter two, public-private partnerships in recent years have yielded what Stenman and Caloia have touted as transformations of aging structures.
"That's exactly the kind of broad strokes that we want to bring to Breese and we're excited to be able to do it in our backyard finally," said Stenman, Big Top's president. "We've been out around the state doing stuff, but Conor and Steve and myself ... this is home."
The agreement tentatively includes up to $1.2 million over two years to continue refurbishing the 89-year-old facility along East Washington Avenue. That's on top of around $4 million the city has spent on the stadium since 2007, including $800,000 for artificial turf installed last year that helped the city open the doors to more events.
Madison Parks Superintendent Eric Knepp said restrooms and concessions are two areas where the stadium is still deficient. Working with the group that's behind the successful Mallards franchise, he said, will provide an outlet to creatively fix those issues.
"It'll be really nice that we have the opportunity to have a partner here every day with all those events to tie it all together of what would really make the most impact with those dollars," Knepp said.
Breese Stevens Field has a colorful history, with rodeos, circuses, car races and wrestling matches taking place in its early years, in addition to baseball, football and soccer.
It fell into disrepair and the original three-sided grandstand was headed toward demolition in the early 1980s before alders pushed for a renovation. After hosting soccer almost exclusively for years, the stadium took on a new life with a variety of events.
In September, Breese Stevens hosted Fighting Bob Fest, an annual political gathering. In October, a concert by folk rock band The Avett Brothers drew a sellout crowd. And the Madison East football team reclaimed the stadium as its home venue this season.
There could be more coming, according to the bid that Big Top submitted in April in response to the city's request for proposals.
In addition to the current high-visibility stadium tenants — Madison Radicals ultimate Frisbee, Madison 56ers soccer and athletics for Edgewood College and East High School — Big Top has ideas for a weekly farmers' market featuring music, beer and wine.
There could be roller derby, youth sports, community events and more concerts, according to the bid. There's also the potential for a new anchor tenant, possibly a minor league soccer franchise in the Premier Development League.
"In the progression of us programming the facility, it does make sense for there to be a franchise that calls this home," said Caloia, Big Top's chief operating officer.
Big Top's plans for improvements to the facility, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, need to get worked out over the next year, Stenman said.
One potential development area listed in the Big Top bid is a bar or restaurant in about 2,000 square feet of vacant space under the bleachers near the intersection of Paterson Street and East Washington Avenue.
Looking around the outside of the facility shows the potential for growing audiences at the stadium. The blocks east and west of the stadium are either under development or heading in that direction.
The 13-story Galaxie mixed-use project to the west is under construction, and the Plan Commission last month approved an addition on the Paterson Street side that includes a rooftop deck overlooking Breese Stevens.
Otto Gebhardt, the developer of the Galaxie and its neighbor to the west, the Constellation, supported the Big Top bid to manage Breese Stevens.
"Their vision for the use of the facility is consistent with ours," he wrote in a letter included in the bid, "and I believe that with the right events at Breese we could develop a Wrigleyville feel of our own right here in Madison on East Washington."
To the east of the stadium, Stone House Development has proposed replacing the former Madison Dairy processing facility with a mixed-use development featuring 65 units of affordable housing and 133 market-rate rental units.
District 2 Ald. Ledell Zellers said she walked to the Oct. 2 Avett Brothers concert to get a sense of the event's impact on the immediate surroundings. She said automobile parking was "handled beautifully" but there wasn't enough bike parking.
With more events at nearby Central Park and at Burr Jones Field six blocks away, residents on that part of the isthmus have raised concerns about the noise level, Zellers said.
Around Breese Stevens specifically, noise complaints arose from some team practices at which the speakers were cranked up.
"It was pretty bad," Zellers said, "and some of the lyrics apparently were pretty colorful in that very family environment."
A draft of the city's contract with Big Top, however, drew a positive review from Zellers, who said she worked with city staff to address concerns on the number and frequency of events at the facility.
Concerts and events like Fighting Bob Fest could have a special appeal for people who live nearby, she said.
"I think it's a great use of that area," Zellers said. "There are a lot of people who live in that area that that is the kind of thing they want to go to. The music events, if they're the right kind of events — which I'm optimistic that they will be — I think it'll be good for folks around there."
Caloia and Stenman said they see 2016 as a year for Big Top to get familiar with the facility and get a better grasp of how to move forward on areas targeted for improvement.
And with the development taking place around the stadium, Knepp said Breese Stevens could be a major neighborhood attraction for years.
"I suspect 20 years from now, this will be a place that everybody that lives in this neighborhood finds something they're going to do here," he said.