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.

 

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.

Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the 7th-inning stretch…

The New York Yankees may have acknowledged that mandatory patriotism isn’t such a hot idea, but don’t tell that to their minor-league brethren across the river:

In a lawsuit filed last week in federal court in Newark, three Millburn High School students contend Newark Bears president and co-owner Thomas Cetnar berated them, cursed at them and then booted them from the ballpark after they failed to stand for the song during the seventh-inning stretch.

“Nobody sits during the singing of “God Bless America’ in my stadium,” Cetnar bellowed during the June 29 incident, according to the suit. “Now get the (expletive) out of here.”

By “my” stadium Cetnar actually means “their” stadium: Bears and Eagles Riverfront Stadium was built and is owned by the city of Newark and Essex County. Cetnar, a former Newark police officer booted off the force after being convicted of embezzling drug buy money, has been a tenant there since buying into the bankrupt Bears franchise last fall.