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.