Updated: September 16, 2013 at 9:45 pm
Building a downtown baseball stadium to spark development is hardly a new idea.
Whether it succeeds is another matter.
Fresno, Calif., opened its stadium, Chukchansi Park, on May 1, 2002 at a cost of $46 million. It has little development to show for it.
In Memphis, the 13-year-old AutoZone Park has generated about $100 million in related development, according to the Memphis Center City Commission.
The difference? Fresno relied on public money. Memphis built its stadium through a private-public partnership.
Their stories convey a larger message, based on similar projects constructed over the past two decades: A stadium's chance of being successful in revitalizing a downtown or further enhancing its growth is often determined by how much public debt is accrued, and whether it's part of a larger plan that has broad support.
Colorado Springs' plan to build a downtown multi-use stadium for Sky Sox baseball games seems to follow the more successful model. It's part of a larger package of four tourism-related projects, known as the City for Champions, and would be financed with public money and private funds.
But a public-private partnership doesn't necessarily guarantee success, and a publicly funded project doesn't always mean failure. Branch Rickey III, president of the Pacific Coast League, cites Oklahoma City's Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark as an example of how a publicly funded ballpark, in conjunction with other developments, can regenerate an area - in this case, a site that had one restaurant surrounded by empty warehouses in 1990. The stadium and a number of other projects were funded by a temporary 1 percent sales tax increase.
"I don't think there is a cookie cutter," said Rickey.
If the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade approves the City for Champions proposal and gives the city $82.1 million in state tourism grants, the Colorado Springs Sky Sox would be the eighth Triple-A franchise to move into a new ballpark since 1990. At least five are stadiums built downtown to replace existing facilities, or to lure a franchise to their city.
Last week, Nashville announced an $80 million ballpark development project - $40 million for a stadium, $10 million for parking and $30 million for a residential development. The project depends on the private money coming in, including contributions from the Nashville Sounds' owners.
"If you can get up to half (of the cost) between the Sounds and corporate partners, then I think it's a really digestible amount for capital," City Councilman Anthony Davis told The Tennessean, Nashville's daily newspaper.
Colorado Springs also can look at what four other cities have done.
Charlotte, N.C., and the surrounding county subsidized the Triple-A Charlotte Knights' future stadium, scheduled to open next spring at a cost of $54 million, for $8 million apiece. The owners agreed to pay the rest. The financing package drew the Knights back to the city's already resurgent downtown after 25 years in nearby Fort Mill, S.C.
In Memphis, the Redbirds receive sales tax money from items sold in AutoZone Park to use toward their debt on the $80.5 million facility. The city and county chipped in $4.25 million apiece to buy the land.
While public-private financing combinations are the norm, Fresno, Oklahoma City and Reno relied mostly on public money to finance the stadiums. It worked out well in Oklahoma, but it's been more of a struggle for Fresno and Reno.
Fresno, operating with a $16 million budget deficit this year, is liable for the loans for its 12,500-seat venue, which drew an average of 6,771 fans this season.
"Given what we've gone through and with hindsight being 20-20, we probably would not have built the size of the stadium and the type of stadium that we built," new Fresno city manager Bruce Rudd has said.
A nearby downtown parking lot, expected to generate revenue for the city's loan payments, is often empty on game nights, said Kate Borders, president of the Downtown Fresno Partnership. Instead, she said, most fans park in lots between the highway and stadium, avoiding downtown.
"It has not been a major attraction and not the outcome that was hoped for," she said. "The community leaders at the time believed the stadium would do all that was needed to revitalize the area."
Other development expected to spring up as a result of the stadium never materialized, and voters are skeptical of other investment downtown, she said.
The Fresno stadium also did little for tourism. Nearby Yosemite and Sequoia national parks draw tourists. Baseball does not.
"Proximity to Pikes Peak might bring some people to the games, but I don't think we got more than a few fans traveling in during my time with the team," said investment advisor Rick Roush, who was part of the Fresno ownership group from 1997 to 2005.
Fresno Grizzlies president Chris Cummings said attendance was high when the downtown stadium opened but soon declined. A downtown needs more, he said.
"Attendance typically goes down after the first three to four years," Cummings said. "You see that around the country. We are doing our part. We have 72 home games, eight (minor league) soccer games and other events that bring people downtown, but we are only part of the puzzle."
Plans to book concerts regularly at the ballpark failed, in part because Fresno State University added a concert hall. Better community cooperation could have avoided that, Roush said.
"There was a real lack of cohesiveness," he said. "I am glad to hear Colorado Springs is trying to do something with grants. I hope they learn from our experience."
Reno's Aces Ballpark, which opened in April 2009, had the potential to be a downtown success story, with the stadium part of a long-term plan dating to the 1990s. But the recession caught city leaders off guard and left them unable to pay $1 million a year in property tax revenue promised to the owners to cover their $55 million in construction loans. A recent deal to refinance the loans improved the situation, Rickey said.
Overall, though, the 9,100-seat stadium has helped Reno's economy. According to a University of Nevada-Reno study, 472 direct jobs, 119 indirect jobs, 143 temporary construction jobs, and $28.8 million in total economic impact can be traced to the ballpark.
Businesses sprang up before the stadium opened, and many remain, although average game attendance is only 4,921. There's a sports bar, a pub and a lounge connected to the ballpark, along with a large outdoor square that includes a dance floor and stage. It was packed when the stadium set a new single-game attendance record of 10,135 for the Triple-A All-Star game in July.
"I highly recommend the idea of a downtown ballpark," Aces general manager Rick Parr said. "It was a great decision by Reno to bring in this family-friendly alternative."
In January, the Reno City Council approved $1 million in annual general fund money, to be approved yearly, for the next 30 years so the owners could refinance the construction loan, which was due in December. The county will consider a similar proposal for $15 million over 30 years.
Colorado Springs could learn from Fresno's mistakes and Reno's bad luck to become one of the success stories, Rickey said, but it will take a large plan, like Oklahoma City paid, to develop the area.
The Sky Sox need to consider the benefits of moving into a new downtown facility compared with staying in a growing residential and commercial area around Security Service Field, where the franchise has enjoyed better attendance in recent years, he added.
The franchise has said it will consider a move downtown.
OTHER STADIUM PROJECTS
Here are six recent examples of downtown baseball stadiums and how they were funded:
Cost: $64 million
Team: Birmingham Barons, Southern League (AA)
Financing: Birmingham raised its lodging tax 3.5 percent.
Cost: $54 million
Team: Charlotte Knights, International League (AAA)
Financing: The city and county each gave the Knights $8 million from hotel/motel tax revenues apiece. The county leases the land to the franchise for $1 a year. The rest will be paid by the franchise.
Cost: $56 million
Team: Columbus Clippers, International League (AAA)
Financing: Franklin County owns both the stadium and the Clippers. It sold revenue bonds to be repaid with ticket and concession sales. A $7 million state grant, corporate sponsorships and proceeds from the $3.3 million sale of the Clippers' former home, Cooper Stadium, also were used to pay off debt.
El Paso, Texas
Unnamed stadium for relocated Tucson Padres
Cost: $60.8 million
Team: To be announced, Pacific Coast League (AAA)
Financing: The city sold bonds that will be repaid with hotel occupancy taxes, a $400,000 annual lease payments by the owner, ticket surcharges and parking fees.
Cost: $80.5 million
Team: Memphis Redbirds, Pacific Coast League (AAA)
Financing: Sale of $72 million in tax-exempt bonds, which are being repaid with a sales tax rebate for items sold in the ballpark; Memphis and Shelby County each chipped in $4.25 million to buy the land and clear utilities.
Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark
Cost: $39.9 million
Team: Oklahoma City RedHawks, Pacific Coast League (AAA)
Financing: The ballpark was the first of nine entertainment and sports facilities included in the Metropolitan Area Projects revitalization effort. MAPS was funded by a temporary one-cent sales tax approved by city voters in December 1993 which expired on July 1, 1999. The tax generated $364 million, including $54 million in interest.
SOURCES: MiLB.com, various newspapers
City looking for state grant
The Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade is considering the city's $218.6 million City for Champions proposal to develop four tourism-related projects, including a downtown baseball/multiuse stadium, a U.S. Olympic museum, a UCCS sports medicine and performance center, and a new Air Force Academy visitors center.
Of the four, the stadium has been the most controversial because some people like the location of the current stadium, which is near Powers Boulevard and Barnes Road, and don't think it would benefit downtown.
If the proposal is approved, the city could get $82.1 million in state tourism grants. The remaining bill would be covered by $61 million in private donations and about $74 million in public money.
The state is not expected to announce its decision on the proposal until December.
ABOUT THE PROJECT
Earlier this year, the city of Colorado Springs submitted a proposal to the state for grant money to fund four tourism-related projects, including a baseball/multiuse stadium and Olympics museum for downtown. The proposal is only part of a broader conversation about ways to breath new life into downtown - a conversation that has been going on for decades.
Why has so little come of the parade of downtown revitalization plans? Why have other cities been able to accomplish so much more for their downtowns?
Those questions sparked a three-day project on the future of downtown that will culminate with a Community Conversation on the topic Tuesday evening.
Sunday: A combination of factors has stalled major downtown efforts in the past, and no single strategy will solve the area's problems going forward, some supporters say. But those who see downtown as a key to the city's overall economic health say the time is right to focus again on the area.
Monday: Omaha, Neb., is just one city that has managed to carry out plans to revitalize its downtown. Talk to civic leaders, and they'll tell you a number of factors contributed to their successess, including public funding.
Tuesday: A downtown sports arena is part of the "City for Champions" proposal that supports say would bring tourists to the city and help revitalize the urban core. A look at stadium projects in other cities suggests that the most successful ones are funded by a combination of private and public money.
Community Conversation: The Gazette and Colorado College have teamed with the nonprofit Food for Thought to hold the Community Conversation on "The Future of Downtown" from 6 to 8:15 p.m. Tuesday at Colorado College's Armstrong Hall. It is free and open to the public, and will focus on recent efforts to revitalize the downtown area. A panel discussion will be 6 to 7:15 p.m., followed by the small-group discussions led by Food for Thought at 7:15 p.m.