Camden will be latest city to tear down its nearly new Atlantic League baseball stadium

In 2001, the state of New Jersey spent $18.5 million ($10.5 million on construction, and $7 million on environmental cleanup) to build a new waterfront minor-league baseball stadium in Camden, across the river from Philadelphia. An independent-minors Atlantic League team moved in, and was named the Riversharks, and everyone sat back and waited for the revitalization to come.

Sixteen short years later, Campbell’s Field, named for the soup company that started in Camden, is set to be demolished. The stadium never made money, and the state ate its construction debt — along with $18.3 million spent on a cross-river tram that was never built — and sold the stadium for $3.5 million in 2015 to the city of Camden, which figured it could pay that off with rent from the team. Then the Riversharks owners, not interested in trying to pay rent on revenues from just 3,000 fans a game, declined to renew their lease and instead moved to New Britain, Connecticut to replaced that city’s departed Double-A team and become the Bees. With nobody using the stadium aside from Rutgers University, it will now be torn down and replaced by athletic fields, or maybe an Amazon headquarters, or maybe something else, nobody knows.

If it feels like you’ve read this before, it’s because you have: The Atlantic League in particular now has a long and sorry history of talking cities and states into building new stadiums for its teams and then slinking out of town not long after. The Newark Bears were first demoted to an even lesser indie league and then went bankrupt in 2014 (I still have a jersey and other goodies from their going-out-of-business sale), and their riverfront stadium is now set for demolition; the Atlantic City Surf only lasted 11 seasons before giving up the ghost and leaving its ballpark as a high-school field where the scoreboard doesn’t work; the Bridgeport Bluefish are being evicted so that city can turn their stadium into a concert amphitheater.

If there’s a lesson here, it’s that minor-league baseball stadiums are incredibly risky gambles, since 1) it’s the rare team that brings in tons of fans after the initial honeymoon period and 2) it’s all too easy for a team to relocate or fold years before the stadium is paid off even if 3) the team is helping to pay off the stadium debt, which it usually isn’t. The Atlantic League particularly targeted itself at small Northeastern cities looking to reinvent themselves as baseball attractions, got a whole lot of stadiums built, and then with few exceptions (teams in Long Island and Bridgewater Township, New Jersey are still going strong, so far at least) pulled up stakes and skedaddled when things weren’t going so well.

I want to have an excuse to link to Deadspin’s Dan McQuade’s lovely remembrance of the Riversharks, so let’s quote from that here:

I liked going to Camden baseball games. Once, I took my father and he won the team’s “Best Beard” contest. He got a hot lather machine for his victory. I’ve lived in Center City Philadelphia for more than a decade now, so games were always a quick PATCO ride away. I could even walk over the bridge if I wanted to! I don’t remember much of the baseball—Von Hayes was the team’s manager one season—but I do remember enjoying my trips there…

Since December 2013, the state has handed out $1.2 billion in tax breaks to businesses to relocate to the city. Subaru is well along on its construction of a new headquarters in Camden; it got $118 million in tax credits from the state to move down the road from Cherry Hill.

The Sixers got $82 million in tax breaks for their new practice facility. When that was announced, a Camden resident asked Sixers CEO Scott O’Neil if there would be jobs for locals. “We need a shooting guard,” he replied. (This is still true.) Holtec International got $260 million in tax incentives to move to the waterfront. (That construction forced out a needle-exchange van; Camden hasn’t been signing Community Benefits Agreements with these companies.)..

The teams of the late-’90s New Jersey minor league stadium boom—the Camden Riversharks, the Atlantic City Surf, the Newark Bears, the Somerset Patriots—are mostly gone. Only Somerset, in Bridgewater, still exists. The promises of economic revitalization by baseball have failed. Now we’ll see how Camden fares under this next plan. Hmm.

 


9 comments on “Camden will be latest city to tear down its nearly new Atlantic League baseball stadium

  1. I clicked through to the Newark Bears story and found it amazing how a tiny team like that could have justified having like 6 mascot outfits. We have a AAA team in my city that we’ve done a lot of work with and they have precisely one outfit plus I believe one spare.

  2. A note on the ease of relocating: Yes and no. It depends. Minor League Baseball, i.e. the affiliated minors, have some remarkably tight territorial rights restrictions. Obviously they can and do relocate, but not all that often. Especially in the high minors, it is surprising how rare are markets that are both open and of suitable size. Indie leagues are another matter. They are the wild west, so far as territorial rights go. Which is to say, spending a lot of money for a indie team is probably not wise, even by the standard of the wisdom of spending a lot of money for any team.

  3. I thought you might like this development in Sacramento:

    http://www.sacbee.com/news/local/article181747471.html

    Ridiculous. Look at how poorly they maintained this. I find it disgusting that they won’t even water the damned trees.

  4. The one instance in which I believe sports franchises actually “need” stadium subsidies is (generally) where minor league sports are concerned.

    It should be no surprise that there isn’t enough revenue in minor league sports (most of them) to pay stadium construction bonds (unlike in virtually all major league sports facilities, where there certainly is enough revenue to pay construction mortgages). Perhaps there isn’t enough revenue to cover ‘break even’ rent levels either, though I am less sure of that.

    The real question has to be why long term non relocation agreements weren’t included as part of these deals (though this wouldn’t have helped in the case of business failures)?

    Secondly, rather than try spending even more money to demolish or remodel the ballparks when the teams leave, why didn’t the cities consider acquiring independent league teams (probably via expansion) to fill them?

    If the justification for spending this money in the first place was to “bring an attraction” to the city, the failure of the private business partner to do that does not mean it is impossible.

    My guess would be that in nearly every case, the owners were doing better than break even (even after paying themselves an owners’ salary… which independent businesspeople everywhere will scoff at for very good reason).

    You can have baseball so long as you have a suitable stadium. You don’t actually need a carpet bagger to own the team for you one of the terms.

    • – All of these teams folded; non-relocation agreements would have been irrelevant, as you mentioned.
      – Read the article – they were all independent Atlantic League teams already.
      – They weren’t breaking even. If they were, the team would have still been there. Owners of minor-league teams generally don’t pay themselves salaries; they make money when they sell the team.

      • I did read the article, thank you. The fact that they were “already” independent league teams does not prevent the cities from seeking replacements.

        There is no evidence that team owners (at any level) are satisfied with ‘breaking even”. In fact, quite the opposite… many seek increased subsidy even when they are generating significant profit.

  5. What really is foolish is building a stadium downtown for such a low-value proposition.

    For whatever reasons (subsidies among them) more and more companies and employees want a “downtown presence” with access to transit, etc. As dumb as using a city’s most valuable land to build a major league football or baseball stadium is, it is even dumber to build one for an independent league team.

    The fact that Camden’s current (most recent?) “renaissance” can go on without its baseball stadium doesn’t seem to have any impact on those who believe sports stadiums are needed for economic development. No surprise there.

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