Newark to raze 17-year-old minor-league stadium it spent $30m on, because that sure didn’t work

The minor-league Newark Bears folded two years ago, going out in a blaze of bankruptcy auction (I still have my $5 game-worn Bears jersey, not to mention my souvenir Bears yarmulkes), and leaving the city of Newark with the stadium that it paid $30 million to build just 15 years earlier. And soon, it won’t have even that, as the city has announced it’s selling the land to a developer for the construction of a mixed-use tower.

Newark will get $23.5 million for the land sale, which at least takes some of the sting out of spending $30 million (in 1999 dollars) to revitalize part of its downtown with a team that was never exactly vital. (Though Rickey Henderson and Jose Canseco both played there briefly, which helped draw at least a few gawkers.) Though even then, Newark could still be on the hook for more money with the new development:

While [deputy mayor Baye Adofo-]Wilson said [developer] Lotus will probably seek a tax abatement for the project, the details of what it will look like have not yet been ironed out. But, the tax break would be contingent upon the company hiring Newark residents during construction, and hotel staffing, he said.

“We require that you hire Newark residents,” Wilson said. “If you do that, we can grant an abatement.”

Depending on how big an abatement and how many hires would be required, that could certainly be a pretty awful deal — Newark might be better off just keeping the tax money and handing it out to residents on streetcorners — but we’ll have to wait and see. Regardless, it’s a sad ending to what was both a pretty nice place to watch baseball and a monument to the willingness of desperate cities to throw money at any sports franchise that offered a promise of a return to urban glory, regardless how faint. Don’t do this at home, kids.

13 comments on “Newark to raze 17-year-old minor-league stadium it spent $30m on, because that sure didn’t work

  1. Wow, too bad about this. I was there on the day in 2002 when the Bears won the Atlantic League title for the first time, and I even got to meet Rick Cerone, one of my all-time favourite players. Cerone was then a part owner of the Bears, and had been instrumental in creating the team.

    The Atlantic League was pretty high level, probably nearly equivalent to AAA. Several players returned to the Majors after having played in that league, most notably the Bears’ Rickey Henderson and Jose Lima. And many of the league’s players had been in the Majors only a year or so before. Examples from the Bears, in addition to Jose Canseco, were Hensley Meulens, Jim Leyritz, and Lance Johnson.

    However, when the Bears’ original ownership group sold out, the new owners didn’t want to pay the costs of bringing in Major League-calibre talent. So they left the Atlantic League and joined the Can-Am League, which has a much lower standard of play. From what I can tell, this completely destroyed any local interest in the team.

    It is sad that the facility couldn’t be maintained as a ballpark, with rentals to high schools, adult leagues, and fantasy camps.

  2. The Atlantic League level of play wasn’t Triple-A by any means — the best comps I saw had it as low-Double-A — but it was (and is) definitely a lot of fun, in part because of all the former major leaguers who drift through hoping to make a comeback. Interest definitely dropped when the team switched to the Can-Am League — I was at a doubleheader late in the Bears’ existence where the players outnumbered the fans (my son collected three foul balls) — but attendance had been dropping for years before that as well.

    The lesson here is: Minor-league baseball can be fun, but if spending public money on a major-league facility is dumb, spending it on a stadium for a team that could easily vanish in a decade is municipal malpractice.

  3. Most minor league stadiums should be put on wheels. That way they could roll into town for a few years, and when the novelty wears off, the roll on down the road to the next town. Like the circus used to do.

  4. I’m not going to advocate for stadium subsidies for anyone… but I will say (again) that modest subsidies for minor league sports can make more sense than subsidies for major leagues sports do.

    Very few minor league sports generate the kind of revenue necessary to fund a stadium or arena (unlike their ML counterparts), so I would argue that modest subsides for minor league sports might actually be necessary in order to provide the attraction for local fans/taxpayers. Whether that makes it a ‘good’ use of taxpayer dollars is another matter entirely.

    The same is not true for major league sports, where the leagues (but not necessarily individual franchises) would exist with or without the subsidies…. the subsidies just make them greatly more profitable than they otherwise would be.

  5. Real crime is Newark probably could’ve had the Red Bull stadium. Might’ve worked out better for Newark, Harrison, Red Bull and Red Bull fans. The lesson, as always, is to never take advice from a sportswriter.

  6. Hmm, John, not so sure about that for two reasons. One, minor baseball leagues have existed forever, and most teams long predate the current subsidized-stadium binge; you probably wouldn’t get teams in exactly the same places without taxpayer-supplied stadiums, but you’d still have teams. And two, the current minor-league business model has grown up with the modern stadium situation, so it’s hard to say how it would look without it.

  7. I guess the good news is that someone wants to actually build a commercial building on the land, even at the usual tax-free price.

    The lesson, as always, is that baseball/soccer/football stadiums are not economic drivers of much of anything other than the teams that play in them.

    Which is why baseball and soccer stadiums were always on the outskirts of cities until governments started to pay for them–the land is too valuable to waste on something that is hardly used.

  8. A bunch of fly by nite con artists get dumb town to build independent league ball park. Then sell out and move to next town. Where have I read this story before. Rick Cerone is no hero !

  9. That’s true, Neil, but minor leagues stadiums have mostly been built by the communities that hosted the teams haven’t they? I don’t recall many (or any) minor league baseball teams that owned their own facilities outright.

    And, of course, the minor league teams used to pay actual rent to use the facilities too… which is completely reasonable. (Major league teams used to do that as well, but progress…)

    I definitely agree that $30m for a non-affiliated league stadium is garbage, but then, it wasn’t supposed to be for that was it?

    Years ago I stumbled across a site with original architectural drawings of Roosevelt stadium (which I believe was where the Jersey City Giants played?)… a WPA project IIRC. Really cool to see the simplicity of the old stadium… I’m sure it wasn’t overly comfortable, but then, baseball wasn’t an indulgence for millionaires (players or fans) then….

  10. “I definitely agree that $30m for a non-affiliated league stadium is garbage, but then, it wasn’t supposed to be for that was it?”

    Yes, it was built specifically for the Bears. That was the whole Atlantic League model: Offer teams to cities, but demand free stadiums in exchange. It worked out okay for Bridgeport and Suffolk County and, oddly, Somerset — in Newark and Atlantic City and Camden, not so much.

  11. I meant the Can Am league, which was not the original plan (I guess we can ask Glendale and their $700m lease break fee how plans sometimes work out).

  12. The Atlantic League is also non-affiliated. In fact, it didn’t even exist yet when the Newark stadium deal was agreed on.

  13. Riverfront Stadium was a great place to watch a game. I never spent a lot of money. Unfortunately, not many fans thought the same thing. The ballpark was in a great location in terms of getting there. It’s unfortunate it didn’t work out. I was able to obtain numerous autographs from former MLB players there. I will miss going there.
    Independent baseball is risky business. Affiliated ball might have survived there