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.

 

Bridgeport Bluefish will fold so city can host more Doobie Brothers concerts

The Bridgeport Bluefish, one of the founding members of the independent minor-league baseball Atlantic League, will cease operations after this season after 20 years. That in itself isn’t all that unusual: Indy-league baseball teams don’t have much of a shelf life, and only one other original Atlantic League franchise survives. (Bonus points to whoever can name them in comments.) The weird part here is the reason: The Bluefish are being evicted from their home stadium by the same mayor who built it for them in the first place, so that he can convert it into an outdoor concert amphitheater.

Yeah, you read that right:

Developer Howard Saffan on Monday night revealed — and the mayor’s office later confirmed — that his and concert promoter Live Nation’s competing proposal to turn the 20-year-old Harbor Yard ballpark into a warm-weather amphitheater was selected by City Hall over a new contract with the Bluefish…

He promised 29 concerts annually in a season running from May to October, and eventually hoped to include other events, from beer festivals to graduations. The amphitheater will open in spring 2019, Saffan said…

Saffan said he and Live Nation will pay for $15 million worth of renovations to the 5,000-seat ballpark, but added he does anticipate a public/private financial arrangement with the city.

This is crazy in many, many ways: The Atlantic League plays a 140-game season, so even if the amphitheater sells better than minor-league baseball, it’s going to be a tough push to bring more people to Bridgeport with 29 concerts than 70 ballgames; Harbor Yard is only 20 years old, and is a generally well-liked stadium, and furthermore is shaped like a baseball stadium so will be a weird fit for concerts; Bridgeport already has an indoor concert arena right next door to the ballpark; and then there’s that “public/private financial arrangement,” which means Bridgeport will be hit with an as-yet-undetermined bill.

The only way this makes sense is if Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim, who had the city pay to build Harbor Yard during his first term as mayor and has now returned to the office [EDIT: after spending more than six years in prison for corruption (thanks, commenters)], got a sweet offer from Live Nation, which is entirely possible — the concert promoter is currently engaged in a war with rival AEG to dominate the summer-outdoor-concert market, so they could easily be throwing some money around to ensure their share of the lucrative Deep Purple/Alice Cooper concert market. Though not so much money that they’ll actually pay for the whole amphitheater conversion, goodness me, no.

And then there’s this:

Ultimately the City Council must approve the amphitheater deal, which comes as Ganim explores running for governor in 2018. The returned mayor wants splashy development news to grow the city’s tax base and impress Democratic primary voters.

And there you have it: A city mayor is trying to curry favor with voters by kicking out the local baseball team so he can bring in outdoor summer concerts for “development.” There’s a first time for everything.