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The hidden costs of the minor league ballpark building boom

Dec 26, 2013, 9:28 AM EDT

minor league park

Here’s a long and interesting story about minor league ballpark construction. About the gigantic boom in new parks between 1993 and 2003 and how that boom cost communities so much more than the backers of the ballparks initially promised. In some places — like Ramapo, New York — that cost was multiple times what was promised and has even led to an FBI investigation into it all.

After reading this, let’s go to the tally board: that’s 1,497 examples of publicly-financed ballparks not being good economic deals and, what, like four or five that ended up being pretty cool?

  1. sdelmonte - Dec 26, 2013 at 9:37 AM

    So I have noticed that once again, Richard Zimbalist is quoted. Not that he doesn’t have good credentials, but he seems to be quoted in every last article on the subject. Surely there must be other experts on the subjects, and surely some of them don’t agree with him entirely.

    I’m not saying he’s wrong. It just bothers me in terms of the reporters always going to the same person for the same quote.

    • jwbiii - Dec 26, 2013 at 2:54 PM

      TFA also quotes J.C. Bradbury, an economics professor at Kennesaw State. Kennesaw is in Cobb County, likely the site of the next major (league) boondoggle. Liberty Media, dba The Atlanta Braves, has a market cap of $16.5b.

    • chadwalters425 - Feb 3, 2014 at 12:38 AM

      Another resource is Mark Rosentraub, author of Major League Losers and a sports management professor at the University of Michigan and a former professor at Cleveland State (I believe). He has done extensive research on the economic impact of public-funded stadiums. He also covers social and urban redevelopment.

      Columbia, South Carolina is looking to build a new stadium. They just built a new stadium for USC baseball. There will be a financing plan at Tuesday’s City Council meeting.

      Anyway, Columbia could possibly the next city to fall into the public-funded stadium trap.

  2. stoutfiles - Dec 26, 2013 at 9:50 AM

    Not ever 24 million dollar minor league stadium is a failure. You just need to build one in a large city that has nothing else going on.

    Fifth-Third Field (Dayton, OH):

    -In their inaugural season, the Dragons managed to sell-out every home game of the 2000 season before the season even started.

    -Voted as one of the top ten hottest tickets to get in all of professional sports by Sports Illustrated

    -2011, the Dragons broke the all-time professional sports record for most consecutive sellouts by selling out the stadium for the 815th consecutive game

    • btilghman - Dec 26, 2013 at 11:51 AM

      That’s all great – it really is – but it doesn’t address the problems around public funding for sports complexes. Those great attendance numbers are good news for the owners, but they translate into increased economic activity in the area? What kind of jobs has the stadium provided? Have the taxpayers made back their investment, or are they projected to in the near future? In the final analysis, was this a better use of taxpayer funds then, say, funding for infrastructure, education, or programs supporting small businesses?

    • kiwicricket - Dec 26, 2013 at 2:54 PM

      You need to build it and actually retain some of it’s ownership perhaps? Just like everything else ever built by cities all over earth.

  3. kinggeorge96 - Dec 26, 2013 at 10:16 AM

    I live near that park in Ramapo, NY. Its still a pretty big sore spot between government and the people, much less the FBI probe. Practically no one wanted the government to back that project in the community…

  4. Old Gator - Dec 26, 2013 at 10:17 AM

    When P T Barnum insisted that a sucker was born every minute, he didn’t have the advantages of modern communication and statistical storage/proliferation to frame an accurate picture of the problem. It’s more like every fifteen seconds.

  5. historiophiliac - Dec 26, 2013 at 11:25 AM

    They built a new minor league park where I live a couple of years ago. The old one did need to be revamped, but they built a new one downtown instead. Of course, taxpayers footed a good part of the bill (for the park and for improvements around — but no parking or public transportation!). It was part of the oligarchy’s plan to reorient the City — and move things away from Midtown. (And, yes, I am partly bitter because I can no longer walk to games.) The other part of the plan was to tax downtown businesses to help pay for some as well. The thinking was that they would benefit from the extra foot traffic, so they should kick some back. Accordingly, the Guthrie Museum and Jazz Hall of Fame help pay for our minor league amenities (yeah). It is a ridiculously nice park for a minor league team and has LESS seating than the old park. It is sunken in the popular style (unlike the old park), which makes it really miserably hot in the summer — something that no one considered when constructing it (also orienting it toward the sun — brilliant planning, guys). They were supposed to put in a misting system, but haven’t quite gotten to that… The old park at least gave you a breeze and did have a misting tent. Anyway, the new one does look very nice — so nice that you can forget that the City has finally succeeded in its plan to build a thriving business district on top of land that was once owned by black business owners. After the Race Riot in 1923, the City did its best to take the land from the black residents and business owners who had been burned out. They fought back and kept their land, but the district never recovered. It took 100 years, but the area is now booming and filling the coffers of white business owners. It’s amazing how much money was available for development for white business people, when local black business owners couldn’t get grants or loans for years. Anyway, the new park has much better beer. The team sucks, but you can get drunk enough you will forget you are walking on the site of a horrific race riot that devastated the north side. Play ball!

    • jwbiii - Dec 26, 2013 at 11:34 AM

      A few months ago, I asked if you had written anything about the Tulsa riots. Looks like you have started!

      • historiophiliac - Dec 26, 2013 at 11:51 AM

        I posted a little something on my blog and spoke at a City Council meeting when they had the proposal to change the street name down there a few months back. The whole thing was an embarrassment and tragedy. Shameful.

      • jwbiii - Dec 26, 2013 at 12:29 PM

        Thanks for trying. When you don’t try, you never succeed.

      • byjiminy - Dec 26, 2013 at 1:45 PM

        Maybe they could rename the team the Tulsa Riots

    • raysfan1 - Dec 27, 2013 at 12:59 AM

      Huh, never realized you were a Tulsan until now, thought you were down here in the OKC area.

      • historiophiliac - Dec 27, 2013 at 9:19 AM

        Nope, I was raised in Green Country. Don’t hate the 9-1-8!

      • raysfan1 - Dec 27, 2013 at 11:35 AM

        Never. I went to ORU for college and med school, and OU Tulsa for my internship training, so I know T-town very well. (I do remember wondering why it was called “Green Country” at first because it was nothing like as green as Florida. Then I travelled to western OK and understood.)

      • historiophiliac - Dec 27, 2013 at 12:01 PM

        I have no idea why you went for the red dirt then.

      • raysfan1 - Dec 27, 2013 at 6:18 PM

        My last USAF assignment was at Tinker AFB, so my first 2 years in OKC was because I was ordered to be here. When I retired, the highest paying job I was offered happened to also be here. That meant my daughter wouldn’t have to change high schools too, so there you go. I plan to eventually head further south/east, but I have no complaints about being here.

  6. kiwicricket - Dec 26, 2013 at 2:20 PM

    Why doesn’t the city retain some of the ownership of the stadium it pays for?
    Just as an example, the Sydney Cricket Ground where the DBacks and Dodgers are kicking off the season is owned and operated by the SCG Trust. Much the same as the 100,000 seat Melbourne Cricket Ground.

    They have all manner of sporting and musical events held at these places. Seems to pay the rent quite nicely.

    If you are going to build a stadium for someone like Loria, why in Christ’s name not own a chunk of it?

    • historiophiliac - Dec 26, 2013 at 2:25 PM

      Don’t talk crazy socialism!

      • kiwicricket - Dec 26, 2013 at 2:51 PM

        Hey! Someone reported my comment!

        In all seriousness, I just don’t understand why the cities involved seem to regurgitate all manners of leverage in the stadium discussion. Yes, NFL or basketball teams might just pack up and leave if you don’t buy them a fancy new playground, but where do they go? There are only so many alternatives before it starts hurting them.

        Miami has twice the population of my entire country, you couldn’t tell me they(as a collective group of govt.) have a pretty good bargaining chip?

      • historiophiliac - Dec 26, 2013 at 3:56 PM

        I didn’t do it!

        I don’t know how it is elsewhere, but I promise you that if the City here had part ownership in any park, it would not help pay off the park. Instead, revenue from it would be used to finance some other corporate welfare scheme or send the Mayor’s wife’s cousin’s brother’s kids to college or something. We quite literally can’t even manage waste here, and we also recently financed a new arena (while also rehabbing our old convention center too!) that helped pay off an obligation to Bank of Oklahoma that the City co-signed for in order to attract a new airline to town…which promptly went defunct. All of our City Councillors, though, are staunchly anti-abortion.

        As a bonus, the majority owner of our local MiLB team sold out his share after the new park was built and he now consults for others wanting to build parks in their communities with public dollars. Not kidding.

      • jwbiii - Dec 26, 2013 at 5:11 PM

        Have you ever read Neil deMause’s blog? You might like it. And he might like your information.

    • clydeserra - Dec 27, 2013 at 12:57 AM

      Australia better pick it up against England or its gonna be a 3 days for them

  7. louhudson23 - Dec 26, 2013 at 2:32 PM

    A major part of the problem is the mythic belief that something more than a clean ball park,with good sight lines,comfortable seats,clean and functional bathrooms ,decent food and good beer is required to draw baseball fans to a ball park. . MLB needs to concentrate and set standards based on these important and necessary basics,including player safety and leave these cities in peace….All this other crap is just people blowing smoke lining ,their pockets based on how much money is spent,from the consultants to the engineers and constructors…..

    • deepstblu - Dec 27, 2013 at 9:41 AM

      Oh, you can attract baseball fans, but in most towns there aren’t enough of those to keep a team going. The strategy for a lot of these teams is to provide entertainment for the kids with a little baseball on the side.

  8. Minoring In Baseball - Dec 26, 2013 at 10:51 PM

    This is unfortunate what happened to Ramabo. Keep in mind, though, that that team and the Can-Am League is NOT a minor league franchise. They are an independent league, and much, much, less stable, not having a major league affiliation.
    There has been a trend as of late, especially at the Triple-A level, of teams trying to out-do each other in terms of their ballpark. I have to admit, that some of the newer ballparks I’ve been to lately have been amazing. It’s just my opinion, however, that I personally enjoy the older, more historic ballparks. McCoy Stadium (Pawtucket Red Sox), McCormick Field (Asheville Tourists), and Grayson Stadium (Savannah Sand Gnats), are just a few examples. I’ve been to 50+ballparks, and the ones with history and character appeal to me more than gimmicks. Then again, I’m at the game to simply watch baseball….

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