Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

A look back: Four minor-league downtown stadiums scored big

By Bill Vogrin Updated: May 15, 2013 at 6:05 pm

Editor's Note: This is a story The Gazette published 10 years ago, when we examined the impact of downtown minor-league baseball stadiums.

The Colorado Springs Sky Sox open the 2003 minor league baseball season in three months - their 15th since leaving Memorial Park downtown for Sky Sox Stadium on the city's northeast outskirts. 

Some hope it will be their last playing in the 9,000-seat facility that sits with its back to Pikes Peak, plagued by cold, stiff winds and surrounded by the suburban homes of the Stetson Hills and Springs Ranch subdivisions along the booming Powers Boulevard corridor. 

Classic Homes developer Jeff Smith wanted to buy the Sky Sox, a Pacific Coast League AAA baseball franchise, and move the team downtown to a new $35 million stadium surrounded by new offices, shops, restaurants, apartments, condos and loft homes.  

Although he is reconsidering the idea, Smith says baseball belongs downtown, and a stadium remains part of a redevelopment plan for the warehouse and industrial neighborhood of south downtown. 

Other pieces of the long-debated plan for downtown include Confluence Park along Monument Creek, a major hotel and a convention center.  

Downtown boosters suggested a proposal Tuesday for financing the project: an increase in the city's 3 percent hotel and rental-car tax. 

Many people question the wisdom of putting a minor league baseball stadium downtown, with all its traffic, parking problems and access issues. 

Can a new stadium succeed downtown? Will enough people turn out to justify the expense, whether funded privately or by tax dollars? 

Are there really any spinoff economic benefits to a downtown stadium? 

Talk to civic leaders in other league cities that have built downtown stadiums in recent years - Memphis, Tenn., Fresno and Sacramento, Calif., Oklahoma City - and the answers are unanimous: 

Yes. 

Oh, yes. 

Absolutely, yes. 

"What has our ballpark meant to downtown?" said Jeff Sanford, president of the Memphis Center City Commission, a redevelopment agency that helped relocate the Memphis Redbirds to an $80 million downtown stadium. 

 "People who hadn't been downtown in years were attracted by the ballpark, and they left converts not only to Redbird baseball but to all of downtown," Sanford said. 

 "I would estimate that as a direct result of the decision to locate the ballpark in the heart of downtown, we got an additional $75 to $100 million worth of development." 

Going downtown 

Smith's idea of moving the Sky Sox downtown is not revolutionary. 

During the past 10 years or so, many major and minor league baseball teams rejected suburban settings in favor of urban stadiums. 

 Colorado fans saw the trend at Coors Field in Denver. 

The list includes Baltimore's Camden Yards and Cleveland's Jacobs Field, as well as Houston, Milwaukee, Phoenix, Detroit, San Francisco and next year in San Diego. 

In that time, nine of the PCL's 16 stadiums were replaced at costs ranging from $20 million to $80 million apiece. 

Tens of millions more went to rehabilitate two older stadiums in Portland, Ore., and Albuquerque, N.M. 

Economists have debated for years the value of sports franchises and venues to cities. 

Some criticize civic leaders for portraying sports teams and venues as economic development tools. 

Moving a stadium simply drains money from one area of a city and moves it to another, writes Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College economist. 

Stadiums don't create jobs, except for short-term construction work, other experts say. 

Zimbalist and others voice another common criticism: Tax money spent on fancy new stadiums never can be recouped. 

Instead, the stadiums create other public expenses such as security and sanitation. 

One of the primary backers of downtown venues to defend the trend is Larry Houstoun, in an August article for the Urban Land Institute.  

"Professional baseball is at least as important in smaller cities ... as it is in major league towns like Chicago, and perhaps more," said Houstoun, who heads the Atlantic Group, a consulting firm that helps cities with redevelopment issues.  

"Many minor league ballparks have come into being in recent years, making minor league teams a new force in the revitalization of small cities." 

Houstoun cites several reasons downtown stadiums are preferable to suburban locations, including the commonly touted benefit stadiums give cities a tool to redevelop vacant or run-down urban property and take advantage of assets such as parking garages and retail shops that might otherwise go unused after dark. 

"The ability of residents and downtown workers to walk to and from games - this access actually builds attendance," he said. 

His research traced additional wages, profits and tax revenues to pedestrian access to stadiums and nearby commerce. 

The pedestrians, Houstoun concludes, offset the drain on public services, at least in part, by generating revenue and taxes collected on tickets sold, parking fees and the food and retail goods fans buy.  

Benefits are greater if the money is being spent by fans who live outside the city limits or tourists attracted downtown to a game on a summer night. 

Then there's the image issue and the desire of cities for a vibrant downtown - one with shops, restaurants, bars, theaters and other entertainment options. 

Not every new stadium is a winner. 

Tucson is not exactly packing them in at its stadium, built in 1998 as a spring training facility for the Arizona Diamondbacks and regular-season home of the Sidewinders. 

Its 2002 attendance of 3,896 per game was second-worst in the PCL, just behind the Sky Sox and ahead of only Calgary, Alberta, which lost its franchise to Albuquerque, where the team will play in 2003 as the Isotopes in a refurbished stadium. 

Tale of four cities 

Houstoun's findings suggest Colorado Springs has much to gain from a downtown stadium. 

That idea seems to be supported by the experiences of the four PCL cities, especially Sacramento and its River Cats team, the top farm team of the Oakland Athletics. 

"Without a doubt, a sports arena located in the central city provides quantifiable economic benefits that can't be matched," said Michael Ault, executive director of the Downtown Sacramento Partnership. 

Teams draw people downtown who might not be there otherwise. They spend money at restaurants and shops before and after games. 

Most importantly, they come back downtown, after the season, to explore and spend more. 

"Downtown restaurants and bars report their business is up 17 to 20 percent on River Cats game nights," Ault said. "Some restaurants are able to add another day of business on game nights." 

The River Cats are so successful at the $40 million Raley's Field - built across the Sacramento River in West Sacramento - that Ault's group is finding it much easier to sell the idea of building an indoor arena in an abandoned downtown rail yard. The group hopes to relocate the NBA's Sacramento Kings basketball team downtown from suburban ARCO Arena. 

 Consider Memphis and AutoZone Park, the $80 million home of the Redbirds, which opened in 2000. 

"The ballpark, by anybody's measure, was one of the cornerstones of our recent revitalization efforts here," said Sanford, the Memphis Center City Commission president. 

AutoZone Park prompted renovation of an office building that had been vacant for 20 years, new apartments, condos and lofts, the first new elementary school in downtown Memphis in 100 years and new retail shops and restaurants, Sanford said. 

People like it so much they agreed downtown was the only place for a new $250 million arena for the NBA Memphis Grizzlies. It is being built a few blocks from the stadium. 

"The ballpark was catalytic," Sanford said. "Ours was a typical deteriorating urban center. It had been allowed to deteriorate for decades. Now we have more people living in downtown than Denver does - 10,000 people today compared to just 500 in 1985. 

"We not only got a new ballpark, we got a new neighborhood." 

Oklahoma City achieved similar results from its $34 million Southwestern Bell Bricktown Ballpark, part of a taxpayer-financed and approved $700 million downtown overhaul. 

"The old ballpark was located north of the fairgrounds, eight miles west of town," said Sean Simpson, vice president of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce. 

"In 1990, there was just one restaurant in downtown, and the rest was empty warehouses," he said. "Now we have the Bricktown, a canal, restaurants, nightclubs, retail, commercial offices, two new hotels. 

"The ballpark brings everyone down. They are rediscovering downtown Oklahoma City and finding it's the place to be." 

Fresno finds its new $27 million Grizzlies Stadium generating a rebirth of its downtown, which has a reputation as a high crime area with little night life. 

"The downtown stadium has been a boon to development in our downtown area," said Stebbins Dean of the Greater Fresno Area Chamber of Commerce. 

"We had been trying to figure out how to bring business back downtown. We need retail back. There's not very much retail left in downtown at all because of a perception that crime is a serious problem downtown." 

All that began to change after the stadium opened last summer and Fresno residents attended games and got a glimpse of downtown, he said. 

"The stadium has changed the whole complexion of downtown Fresno," Dean said. 

"Turnover has occurred in real estate, and we're seeing businesses crop up in our downtown, including small restaurants." 

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