Hartford mayor scraps $60m bond sale for Double-A team, instead proposes “public-private” mumble mumble something

Faced with many many people very unhappy with his plan to sell $60 million worth of bonds to build a stadium for the New Britain Rock Cats, Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra accounced on Friday that he was scrapping the bond sale and replacing it with, um, splunge:

The council is expected to see a new resolution for the stadium at its Aug. 11 meeting, Segarra said. That plan would be contingent on the “public-private partnership” that has yet to be determined; proposals from developers are due Aug. 1.

From the sound of it, Segarra is now hoping that accompanying housing and retail development will somehow generate enough money to pay for the ballpark, though whether that’s “private developers are so desperate to build housing in downtown Hartford that they’ll fund a stadium just to get to do it” or “enh, let’s just kick in a bunch of property tax revenues to pay off the stadium bonds and call that ‘private’,” who the hell knows. It’d be nice to think that we’ll actually learn what the proposal is before the August 11 meeting — you know, so that people can actually comment on it — but don’t hold your breath.

Minor-league stadium plan costing Hartford shot at supermarket’s 250 jobs

Connecticut state senator Eric Coleman had an op-ed in the Hartford Courant yesterday outlining why he thinks spending $60 million in city money on a stadium to lure the Double-A New Britain Rock Cats to town is a lousy idea, an argument that you can probably picture just from the phrase “$60 million in city money on a stadium to lure the Double-A New Britain Rock Cats to town.” He does add one interesting piece of information, though, that we haven’t discussed here before:

Two weeks after the Rock Cats deal was announced on the steps of city hall, we discover that the site of the proposed stadium was (until recently) the planned home of a 50,000-square-foot grocery store, most likely a Shop Rite. The supermarket would have been part of an $80 million mixed-use development, including apartments.

As the Courant reported last week, it’s actually an adjacent piece of land. But the supermarket plan has indeed been scrapped because the Hartford Community Loan Fund, the non-profit that had hoped to develop the project, says it’s not compatible with a minor-league baseball stadium.

Coleman says this is a waste as Hartford badly needs decent supermarkets, which it may well. But even in gross economic impact terms, now we have a basis for comparison: A 50,000-square-foot supermarket, if we can believe this randomly Googled press release, creates an average of 250 full-time jobs. A minor-league baseball stadium creates 25-30 full-time jobs, plus a few hundred part-timers. That’s not a great tradeoff, even if you assume that more of the supermarket spending would be cannibalized from other stores in the city than the baseball spending would be from other local entertainment options. (Which probably isn’t a good assumption, anyway, given that Hartford residents currently spend $40 million a year on buying food outside of Hartford, because options inside the city are so crappy.)

Plus, since the supermarket plan would have been at least partly financed by a private developer (no final deal was in place, so we can’t say precisely how it would have worked out), the city would then get the benefits of whatever else it wanted to do with its $60 million. It’s still not quite an apples-to-apples comparison — the city, for one thing, insists that a stadium and a supermarket can coexist — but it does give some sense of how crappy the typical sports development project looks compared to building just about anything else you can imagine.

Hartford Double-A stadium would fall woefully short in job creation, local newspaper fails to notice

An article in yesterday’s Hartford Courant analyzed the proposed $60 million deal to bring the double-A New Britain Rock Cats to town, and found that the key to making it pay off in job creation will be “keeping the park in use throughout the year with lots of concerts and other events.”

Okay, that seems reasonable — the more the stadium is in use, the more people will have to be employed there. Who did the Courant get its information from?

“That’s the number of jobs that will have to be filled,” said the [Hartford city] consultant, Jason Thompson, a vice president at the Brailsford & Dunlavey management firm… “Brand new, successful ballparks operate this way.”

Okay, so the guy the city is paying to estimate its job creation projections (650 full-time equivalent jobs, if you were wondering) thinks that it will create jobs in line with what he projects it will create. What else you got, Courant? Let’s see, the director of a “year-round” ballpark in Birmingham, Alabama that has 25 full-time staff and between 75 and 275 part-timers on event days, which is a lot less than 650 full-time jobs. The president of a team with another minor-league stadium in Fort Wayne, Indiana, which despite nearly 600 (!) events a year has just 30 full-timers and 600 part-timers.

Finally, at the very end, we get an actual brief quote from someone who isn’t in the business of promoting the economic benefits of minor-league stadiums:

“Certainly 600 seems way out of the ballpark,” said Nola Agha, an assistant professor of sports management for the University of San Francisco. “You’re never going to get close to that 600 number in reality.”

The story here, then, seems to be that even the most successful minor-league baseball stadiums come nowhere near generating the kinds of jobs that Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra is promising. (It’d also be interesting to hear how many of Birmingham’s events, say, could be held year-round in considerably chillier Hartford, but that’s something else the Courant didn’t explore.) Instead, we get the headline “In Minor-League Cities, Stadium Use Key To Job Creation” — which is true, so long as you acknowledge that it’s the key to the difference between crappy and crappier.

[UPDATE: Meanwhile, the Rock Cats owner says he had to engage in secret negotiations to move the team because a Red Sox prospect slipped and sprained his ankle on wet turf in New Britain two years ago. Really.]

Hartford residents slam Double-A stadium plan at comment session

Shadow puppet plays are one thing, but this item from Hartford is the first time I can recall a poetry slam breaking out at a stadium funding hearing:

In short, rhyming bursts, Chris Brown summed up the feelings Monday of dozens who spoke about a proposed minor league stadium in Hartford.

“In a startling announcement on the sunny fourth of June, from left field came a stadium surprise that afternoon. With dicey-looking figures and mathematic wiggle room, we saw the latest road map to efficient fiscal doom,” Brown told city council members during a public comment session at city hall.

“Must cities always kiss up to the whiter-collared set, when the needs of people living here you seem to just forget? Seems like fixing up our neighborhoods would be a better bet. Or plowing piles of snow instead of giant mounds of debt.”

There were plenty of other comments as well (“These stadiums always cost more than projected, and they generate much less”), though less metrically impressive ones. The Hartford city council still needs to vote on Mayor Pedro Segarra’s $60 million plan to build a stadium to lure the Double-A New Britain Rock Cats to move ten miles northeast, with a full hearing set for July 21. This could only be improved if all members of the council were required to hold their discussion in rhyming couplets.

Hartford to spend $60m on stadium to lure Double-A team from 10 miles away in New Britain

The mayor of Hartford, Connecticut wants to spend $60 million building a stadium to lure the New Britain Rock Cats to his city. That would be the minor-league baseball New Britain Rock Cats of the Double-A Eastern League. Mayor Pedro Segarra said that the stadium, which will cost the city $4.3 million a year in debt payments while the Rock Cats pay $500,000 a year in rent, will provide “an infusion of jobs and opportunities” for north Hartford, while preventing “the Rock Cats from leaving the state of Connecticut.”

We will now pause to allow you time to laugh, boggle, or sob incoherently at the state of humanity.

Nobody quite understands where this came from: The Rock Cats have had good attendance numbers and play in a stadium that is only 18 years old. There have been rumors that the team owners were talking about moving the Springfield, Massachusetts, but those have only emerged since the Hartford news was announced, so it’s impossible to say whether they’re real or a pretext. And in any case, New Britain officials don’t appear to have been given a chance to negotiate to keep the team in town; as recently as two days ago, the mayor of New Britain tweeted: “SPOILER ALERT: The Rock Cats aren’t leaving New Britain.”

So: $60 million for a stadium to lure a Double-A team from southwest Hartford County to central Hartford County, a distance of about ten miles. Happy Thursday.

That Grantland article about the El Paso Chihuahuas stadium, in selected quotes

Grantland, because it’s Grantland, has a long, rambling article this week about the Triple-A El Paso Chihuahuas‘ new stadium, which is costing taxpayers at least $62 million, required the city to blow up its City Hall to make way for it, and is so far behind schedule that the team had to start the season on a 24-game road trip. For a tl;dr version, though, the highlights are all in the quotes:

  • Branch Rickey III, grandson of the guy Harrison Ford played, thinks the whole thing is hilarious: “A community willing to blow up their city hall! Oh, god. In order to bring minor league baseball to town! You can’t make that up.” Branch Rickey III is president of the Pacific Coast League, the minor baseball league that is benefiting from the project.
  • Rickey says fans hate old stadiums because “they were in the wrong section of town,” because “you could smell the restrooms before you opened the doors,” and because “there were no baby-changing stations.” El Paso’s previous stadium was built in 1990, ten minutes from the site of the new stadium.
  • Rickey is really, really proud of the fact that the teams in his league are managing to sell anything other than watching baseball: “Ninety percent of our fans, when they leave the stadium after the game, can’t even recall the final score.”
  • Jim Paul, the owner of the former El Paso Diablos who got the 1990 stadium built (with public money), says he got the idea when the Richmond Braves got public money out of their city for a new home. “When we saw what he did, everyone in the minor leagues began thinking, Hey, maybe we can do that, too.” He came up with a proposal for $6 million in public funding for a new stadium while drinking beers with two city councilmembers. Nine years later, he sold the team for 100 times what he paid for it to new owners who immediately moved it to Springfield, Missouri.

It’s a story that could be told about pretty much any small city in America — minus the City Hall implosion — but it is kind of remarkable to hear how even some of the principals involved think it’s hilarious. Of course, it’s easy to laugh when you come away with a 10,000% profit and somebody else is footing the bills.

Anyway, it’s still way better than the puff piece on El Paso that the New York Times real estate section did last year. Speaking of things that you wonder if the people involved think it’s hilariously absurd.

Every city with a minor-league baseball stadium thinks it can land the A’s now, basically

If you liked San Jose’s claim that it was trying to lure the Oakland A’s to play temporarily in a 4,200-seat minor-league stadium, you’ll just love this:

[Lynn] Lashbrook, president of Sports Management Worldwide, visited Hillsboro Ballpark and met with the architects who drew up plans for the Class A Hops’ 4,500-seat stadium, which made its debut last June.

The mission was to determine if enough temporary seating could be added to increase the capacity so the stadium could serve as an interim facility for the Oakland A’s, if they would choose to move, while a permanent stadium in Portland is built…

“I think we can get it to a capacity of between 15,000 and 20,000,” Smith says.

I’m trying to picture how this would play out in A’s owner Lew Wolff’s head: Let’s see, I’d be moving from being second fiddle in one of the biggest metro areas in the U.S. to a market that has doesn’t even have a triple-A team — sorry, wait, to a suburb of that market, in a stadium that would hold maybe half the capacity that an MLB franchise requires, if someone can find the money to build the temporary expansion. And then I could either hope that someone builds a full-size stadium in downtown Portland — something Lashbrook has been talking about for a decade but getting nowhere — or start all over again somewhere else. Where do I sign?!?

The only way this really makes sense — okay, there’s no way it makes sense, but the only way it’s even conceivable if you squint really hard and check your disbelief at the door — is if Wolff finds himself backed to the wall by intransigent lease demands by Oakland on the Coliseum, and then doesn’t want to try to rent from the Giants because they’re in the middle of a territorial rights battle with them and doesn’t want to move to the A’s already-14,000-seat-capacity triple-A stadium in Sacramento because, um, he’s afraid of floods, maybe?

My favorite part of this entire Portland Tribune article, meanwhile, is that the single-A Hillsboro Hops would continue to play at their stadium at the same time as the A’s, because what minor-league baseball team doesn’t love having to compete for fans with a major-league team in their same stadium? After all, that’s happened before … I’m pretty sure never, but there’s a first time for everything.

Spokane arena doesn’t make money, but it does make … smiles, I guess?

Hey look, it’s two happy-ending sports venue stories in one day! Or happyish endings, anyway: The Spokane Spokesman-Review reports that the Spokane Arena, built in 1995 at a cost to the city of $62.2 million, is profitable, draws concerts that otherwise wouldn’t be likely to stop by eastern Washington (Cher! Three times!), and is home to minor-league hockey and arena football.All of which is great, until you read the fine print:

  • The arena “reported an average operating profit of $962,000″ from 2004-2012, but that’s just an operating profit. If you count construction debt, the arena is losing a few million dollars a year.
  • Some of those concerts would likely play in Spokane regardless: “Being the biggest city between Minneapolis and Seattle means the arena hosts some acts that can’t afford not to play along the way, said Kevin Twohig, the Public Facilities District’s chief executive officer.”
  • The PFD and the teams that play at the arena already want a new one in the next decade or so, because, as Twohig says, “You’d have a hard time finding a 30-year-old arena in a major market right now in the U.S.” All the other kids are doing it!

There are some bright spots here: Spokane’s arena was fairly cheap compared to a major-league facility. And as economist Geoffrey Propheter (you remember Geoffrey Propheter) points out, there are intangible benefits to an arena as well:

The intangible benefits of the Arena are by definition difficult to measure, but they include public use of the facility for events such as graduations or the Washington State B basketball tournaments it hosts each year. If arenas are built with public money and those aims in mind, Propheter said, the goal is more focused on the intangible benefits than the tangible ones.

“The policy objective is not to increase the amount of cash in someone’s pocketbook or jobs,” he said. “Instead the goal is to give the community a place to engage in certain activities, and that makes people happy. That happiness is difficult to quantify, but it is a real sense of happiness for the community.”

That’s absolutely a consideration: If getting to host some NCAA tournament games every few years and having arena football and minor-league hockey and all that comes with the new arena (Cher! Three times!) when you’re practically on the Idaho border is worth the $62 million price tag, then far be it from me to argue. Spokaners might want to be prepared to put a price on happiness before the next arena bill is presented in a few years, though, just in case.

Memphis buys itself a money-losing minor-league stadium after team gives out free hot dogs

That plan to have the city of Memphis bail out the minor-league Redbirds by buying their money-losing stadium while selling the money-making team to the St. Louis Cardinals is now a reality, with the city spending $24 million on the deal. The Memphis Flyer reports that “the loans would not be paid for directly from the city coffers,” but it actually seems to mean that it would be paid for by diverting tax money that the city would otherwise receive, since the bonds would mostly be paid off with “tax credits [and] tax rebates,” with the Redbirds chipping in a comparatively piddly $300,000 a year in rent.

The Flyer touts this as “keeping the Memphis Redbirds baseball team in Memphis for the next 17 years,” which I suppose it does, though given that Memphis is by far one of the largest Triple-A baseball markets, you have to wonder if the team really would have left without a bailout. (Especially since even if it left it still would have been saddled with the stadium.) It’s possible the deal could work out okay for Memphis if it gets enough revenue from the ballpark, but as I still can’t find any indication of who’d get what revenue streams (concessions, parking, etc.), it’s tough to predict. Suffice to say that it wouldn’t be much of a bailout if the Cardinals weren’t getting to keep most of the revenues, though, so I’m not overly optimistic.

The Memphis city council voted 8-4 to approve the plan, after the team rallied fans to show up at the hearing in Redbirds regalia:

Proponents of the park purchase filled the seats at Memphis City Hall Tuesday and roared with applause as the approval vote tally was read. The fans of the deal sported red, Redbirds t-shirts, foam fingers, baseball caps and rally signs that read “Vote Yes – Rally for AutoZone Park.”

Hundreds gathered at AutoZone Park Tuesday afternoon for a rally in support of the city’s purchase of the ballpark ahead of Tuesday evening’s vote. The crowd gathered were given free hot dogs, hot chocolate, Redbirds baseball hats, and beanies.

I take it all back: $24 million in public funds in exchange for free hot dogs is totally worth it.