Opinion: Minor league baseball not a sure bet for revitalization

 In July 2019

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Opinion

By Mark Washburn

Charlotte and Durham are magic words up in Worcester, Mass., which took on $100 million of debt to build the nation’s most expensive minor league ballpark.

It’s one of the most extreme examples of pouring public money into a sports arena, a risky gamble pitched to the public up there. There was a purring come-on: Just see what happened to the North Carolina downtowns when they decided to play ball.

It is true that minor league, Triple-A baseball is a hit in both Charlotte and Durham. And it is true that both ballparks are surrounded by roaring development.
But it’s disingenuous to use them as exemplars of building ballparks with taxpayer cash to perk up urban doldrums. In truth, the two Carolina stadiums reveal the folly of the approach.

After 1988’s Bull Durham movie, the Durham Bulls started thinking about moving from their decrepit 1926 stadium. Durham didn’t want to lose the team owned by the Goodmon family’s Capitol Broadcasting Co. It built the team a $19 million Durham Bulls Athletic Park that opened in 1995 on the edge of the city’s slumbering business district. Durham poured in more through the years, including $6 million in a 2014 renovation. It still reaches into its general fund each year to pay for it all.

Durham’s once sketchy-after-dusk downtown is now a forest of construction cranes. It sparkles with street life and thriving restaurants. But that didn’t start until more than a decade after the stadium, and it wasn’t because the ballpark cast a special spell.

It happened, at least in part, because Raleigh-based Capitol Broadcasting poured millions into the abandoned American Tobacco factories nearby, developing offices and restaurants to help spur Durham’s renaissance.

Charlotte’s stadium story is the opposite. It’s an example of what happens when you’re stingy with tax dollars.

When the Charlotte Knights wanted to move into uptown from the suburbs, the city said no to building a stadium but helped broker a deal.

Mecklenburg County handed off the land — a blighted block of rundown warehouses — for $1 a year and an economic development grant of $835,000 annually for 20 years. Charlotte Center City Partners, a downtown booster group, agreed to pitch in $50,000 a year for 20 years, and the city added tourism money totaling $635,000 annually for two decades.

After that, it was up to Charlotte Knights owner Don Beaver to pay for the $62 million stadium. In 2014, its first year at BB&T Ballpark, the team went from last in attendance in the International League to No. 1 in all of minor league baseball. In 2018, the Knights drew 619,639, while over the five years following the move from South Carolina, the team has attracted about 9,200 per game. The league champion Bulls had attendance of 536,304 last year, or about 7,700 per game.

Unlike Durham, there wasn’t a decade-long pause in the Queen City neighborhood’s fortunes. Having about 70 games in downtown Charlotte brought a surge of new energy to the city’s vibrant core, particularly for night games. Condos, restaurants, apartments and office towers shot up on all sides of the stadium, development valued at about $700 million, generating taxes to cover the taxpayer investment.

Despite their appearances in Charlotte and Durham, minor league stadiums are not magical development machines. They are wonderful amenities, but they don’t usually transform their cities in dramatic ways.

First National Bank Field, home to the Greensboro Grasshoppers, is only beginning to see development stir in empty lots near the $22 million stadium, which opened in 2005 and was privately financed. Outside Winston-Salem’s $49 million BB&T Ballpark, opened in 2010 with $27 million in taxpayer money, plans are in the works for modest retail and housing development.

Somehow, those pitches for ballparks keep connecting, and planners keep betting on baseball. New stadiums in Fayetteville, Kannapolis and High Point are centerpieces of large-scale urban redevelopment. There’s magic in baseball, all right — but you’ll find it in mustard on a hot dog and the crack of a bat on a summer’s eve.

Reach him at mwashburn76@ gmail.com

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