Thursday, August 7, 2014

Baseball in Hartford - a $60 million mistake?

I love baseball.  I've attended games from Buffalo to Nashville.  Heck, I'd love to see a minor-league team here in Stamford.  However, there are so many things wrong with the current proposal for a minor-league ballpark in Hartford that I don't know where to begin, but I'll try.

If ballparks were money-makers, private businesses like teams or real estate developers would be all over them.  I'm guessing that stadiums are, in fact, not money-makers, since so many teams stick their local city/county/state with the bill for the construction and upkeep of the stadium.  Pretty sweet deal - for the teams.

Why should any municipality build a facility for a private business to begin with?  How about a building for Stop & Shop?  Why not a building for my blogging empire?  Perhaps it's because Mayor Segarra has stars in his eyes over the prospect of being known as the mayor who brought baseball to Hartford - but this is a poor use of public funds.

To take it a step further, not only would this be a publicly-owned building built for a private tenant, but it's a single-use tenant!  This isn't an arena or a concert hall or a convention center.  It's a baseball stadium, and baseball stadiums are good for one thing: baseball games (and maybe the occasional outdoor concert or wrestling show).

To take it another step, this would be a city-owned building with a private single-use tenant - and said tenant would only use the building about 70 times a year!  So that's $60 million of public money to construct a building that will be empty 290 days a year.  How is that a sound investment?  Can you imagine a city spending $60 million to build a giant warehouse that's only used for the two months before Christmas?

Regarding that investment, I'd love to hear from Mayor Segarra how much the stadium will cost the city after interest, and how long it's estimated to take the city to pay back the loan and turn a profit on the stadium, assuming that's even in the projections.  And will there be an ironclad commitment from the Rock Cats to stay in the stadium for a certain number of years, so the city isn't stuck with an empty stadium and a huge debt?

Speaking of projections, you've probably heard the overly optimistic projections for this project: that 10% of game attendees will stay in Hartford hotels; that the team will draw more than 7000 fans per game (they currently draw 3500 per game); that the stadium will directly and indirectly create more than 600 jobs (with no explanation of how exactly this number would happen).

There are so many ways this can go bad.  Let's take a quick and unscientific look at some of the ways:

-  Mayor Segarra can drive down to Bridgeport for a prime example of what's wrong with this plan.  Bridgeport built a stadium and an arena in a neglected part of the city that's separated from the downtown by a major highway (just like in Hartford), but this hasn't sparked the kind of economic development the city predicted.

-  An arena falls into disrepair and then obsolescence, e.g.: Nassau Coliseum.

-  A stadium is demolished before the city's loans to build it are even paid off, e.g.: Seattle Kingdome.

-  A team decides to move out of a fairly new stadium because they can make more money from luxury boxes in a newer, publicly-funded one, e.g.: Atlanta Braves.

-  A team cries poverty to get the city to build it a new stadium, then is revealed to have millions more than it claimed. That was the Miami Marlins, who, once they got their shiny new stadium, sold off all of their good players.  (Sidenote: any elected official who believes a cry of poverty from someone who owns a freaking baseball team needs his or her head checked.)

-  A team holds its home city or county hostage for a new stadium by threatening to move: countless examples.

In a recent appearance on WNPR's Where We Live, Mayor Segarra cited the success of Dayton, Ohio's minor-league ballpark as an example of what Hartford is trying to do.  He talked about how the Dayton Flyers have sold out the stadium for fifteen straight seasons.  That's all well and good, but let's be honest: we don't live in prime minor-league baseball country.  We have an abundance of sports teams and other big-time activities that occupy our time.  The Bluefish draw decently, but I don't think anyone would say that they've been a runaway success.

Mayor Segarra and Shawn Wooden, President of the Hartford City Council, also talked a lot about the stadium as being just one part of a multi-faceted development for the Downtown North area of Hartford.  The stadium is intended to be the catalyst that sparks interest from developers who'll fill in the rest of Downtown North with ancillary development - retail, housing, etc.  This isn't a bad idea, but it's not a simple matter of "if you build it, development will come."  Sure, that might happen, but do you really want your city to spend $60 million (plus interest) on a risky proposition like that?  If it were that easy to spur development, then cities would go nuts with building "catalyst" projects.  Governments can and do build things that encourage development - things like colleges, transportation systems, etc. - but this is a whole other matter, and the resulting development usually follows indirectly.  Without a firm commitment from a developer to build the ballpark as part of a larger development (the hypothetical one that Mayor Segarra and company believe will materialize around the ballpark), then the ballpark could end up as a lonely outpost surrounded by everyone's favorite urban sight: surface parking.  In other words, without a fully-realized, fully-(privately)-funded, multi-faceted development plan, this ballpark is a huge risk - and cities should not be in the real-estate speculation business.  What if the city builds the ballpark and then the real estate market tanks again?

Now, if ballpark-as-anchor is the plan, then the city should sell (or lease) the land for the stadium to a developer who will handle the construction of the stadium.  A city building a stadium to raise tax dollars on the property around it is like a struggling movie theater deciding to make its own movies.  In other words, stick to the business you know.  Cities shouldn't be in the business of running ballparks, arenas, and the like.

They also talked about the need for private financing for the project, but wouldn't answer host John Dankosky's questions about how that would even work.  Wouldn't an investor want to be a part-owner?  Since then, the mayor has bowed to political and public pressure and agreed to make it a public-private venture.  Here are two articles about the developers' proposals: 
Plans For Hartford Stadium, New Municipal Offices Revealed 
Hartford Gets Four Proposals For Stadium, Development

As awesome as a brewery and ballpark sound, I'm still not sure how these public-private partnerships would work.  Would the developer build the ballpark with the city's money, then the city would own it?  Would the developer and the city co-own and co-manage the ballpark?  It's all very murky, which is not a good sign for the taxpayers.

Overall, here's the thing to remember: if stadiums were money-makers, private companies would own and run them.  Since they're clearly not, we, the public keep getting stuck with the bill.  And that stinks.

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