Friday roundup: Remembering Jim Bouton, and the latest in stadium shakedown absurdities

One day maybe 16 or 17 years ago, I was sitting at my computer when my phone rang and a voice at the other end said, “Hi, this is Jim Bouton. Can I speak with Neil deMause?”

Once I’d picked my jaw up off the floor that the author of Ball Four (and winner of two games in the 1964 World Series) was calling me, we got down to business: Bouton was in the midst of writing a book about his attempts to save a nearly century-old minor-league baseball stadium in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and had some questions about how attempts to save old ballparks (and save the public’s money on building new ones) had gone in other cities. We soon fell to chatting amiably about the nuances and absurdities of the stadium game — I’m pretty sure Jim had only one setting with people he’d just met, which was “chatting amiably” — and eventually ended up having a few conversations about his book and his work as a short-term preservationist and ballclub operator. (The preservation part was successful — Wahconah Park is still in use today — but he was eventually forced out from team management.) I got to meet him in person for the first time a couple of years later when he came to Brooklyn to talk with local residents then fighting demolition of their buildings to make way for a new Brooklyn Nets arena, an issue he quickly became as passionate about as everything else that touched his sense of injustice; when I learned (at a Jim Bouton book talk, in fact) that the initial edition of Field of Schemes had gone out of print, he enthusiastically encouraged me and Joanna Cagan to find a publisher for a revised edition, as he had never been shy about doing for his own books, even when that meant publishing them himself.

The last time I talked to Jim was in the spring of 2012, when he showed up at a screening of the documentary Knuckleball! (along with fellow knuckleball pitchers R.A. Dickey, Tim Wakefield, and Charlie Hough) to help teach kids how to throw the near-magical pitch. We only got to talk briefly, as he was kept busy chatting amiably with everyone else who wanted a moment with him. Soon after that, he had a stroke, and eventually developed vascular dementia, which on Wednesday took his life at age 80.

I’m eternally grateful to have had a chance to spend a little time with one of the nicest, smartest, funniest world-famous authors and ballplayers you could ever hope to meet, especially when we crossed paths on a topic that was so important to both of us. The image I’ll always retain of Jim, though, was of getting ice cream with him near his home in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and him looking at my cup and exclaiming, “Sprinkles! That’s a great idea!” and then sprinting back into the shop to get some added to his as well. To the end, Jim Bouton remained boyishly intense about things that were truly important, whether fighting General Electric to save an old ballpark or eating ice cream, and that’s a rare and precious gift. My sympathies to his wife, Paula, and to all who loved him, which by this point I think was pretty much everybody.

And now, to the nuances and absurdities of this week’s stadium and arena news:

Chicago Fire to pay $45m-plus to move from suburban soccer stadium to Soldier Field

The Chicago Fire, who for the past 13 years have played in a soccer-specific stadium in suburban Bridgeview that has been somewhat of a disaster for all concerned — attendance is meh, and the village of Bridgeview has taken a bath on the lease — have agreed to pay $65.5 million as part of a buyout so they can move to the Bears‘ Soldier Field starting next season, according to the Desplaines Valley News, “a household name in the southwest suburbs since 1913”:

The breakup, which had been hinted at for several years, became official Tuesday afternoon when the village board unanimously approved a Memo Of Understanding between the Fire and Bridgeview. The next step is formally amending the lease, which is expected.

Under the terms of the memo, the team would pay the village $60.5 million to escape its lease. That includes a $10 million payment upfront with the balance paid over the next 15 years, the village’s financial advisor Dan Denys told the board…

The Fire would also pay the village $5 million for the next five years for using the Bridgeview facilities for practice, Denys said.

Okay, that’s not really a $65 million buyout: The $5 million is rent on using the stadium as a practice field, and since $50.5 million of the actual buyout would be spread over 15 years, that’s a present value total of more like $45 million. (Which is a lot less than the previous buyout estimate of $125 million, though of course that was just an estimate.) Though the Fire owners have also reportedly promised to “make whole” SeatGeek if the move harms the value of the company’s naming rights deal on the Bridgeview stadium, which could add millions more to their cost. Plus we still don’t know what the Fire will pay the Chicago parks department (who if I’m reading the Bears’ lease right control Soldier Field on non-NFL days) to play in their new home.

All of which is interesting in that it shows how desperate the Fire are to get into a stadium that their fans can actually get to, but more to the point: An MLS team is choosing to move from a soccer-specific stadium to become a renter in somebody else’s NFL stadium did Don Garber just keel over and die or what? It’s been MLS gospel for years now that soccer-specific stadiums are a must, with the only exceptions allowed being for teams that at least play in a multisport stadium that they control; the Fire will apparently now be an exception to that rule. To every would-be expansion city being asked to build a new stadium for soccer when it already has another stadium that could be used — which is to say, all of them — this should set an example that it isn’t actually necessary; it may be nice for a team and its fans, but that doesn’t mean cities should be on the hook for paying for them because they’re told it’s the only possible way to have a successful team.

Friday roundup: Sacramento soccer subsidies, Fire could return to Chicago, and a giant mirrored basketball

Did I actually write a couple of days ago that this was looking like a slow news week? The stadium news gods clearly heard me, and when they make it rain news, they make it pour:

Chicago developer offers stadium to Amazon as part of HQ deal, just because, okay?

I’m sorry, what?

A Chicago developer is offering a unique perk in the all-out competition to win Amazon’s second headquarters: Amazon Stadium.

Sterling Bay’s proposal to bring as many as 50,000 Amazon headquarters workers to its Lincoln Yards development includes the potential for a sports and concert venue near the Chicago River.

The developer describes preliminary plans for “a world-class sports and entertainment stadium” in the materials obtained by the Tribune.

And look, there’s a rendering:

That is indeed a stadium, and it indeed says “Amazon” on the field, where there appears to be a soccer match going on. (The Amazon logo is going to be sideways when viewed on TV or by the vast majority of fans in the grandstand, but they can always tweak that later.) The question is: Why? Does Sterling Bay really think that Amazon would like a sports stadium as part of its corporate headquarters, for when the company is bored with dominating retail sales and streaming video and wants to monopolize sports, too? Is this part of some gambit to move the Chicago Fire out of Bridgeview, leaving the suburb with its massive stadium debt that it already can’t pay off? Is it just trying to get “Sterling Bay” associated with “stadium building” in the public mind, so that next time a stadium needs to be built, they’re the ones who get the call?

I think maybe let’s just go with “When a megacorporation like Amazon dangles jobs as a carrot, both local elected officials and local developers tend to lose their minds.” This is so going to make the Tesla subsidy shakedown look like penny-ante stuff, I’m afraid to even watch.

Columbus arena sparks opening of convenience store, bringing Twizzlers to struggling local economy

And now, here is an actual newspaper article from Columbus boasting about how the city’s new hockey arena prompted the opening of a 1300-square-foot convenience store:

“That’s the ideal tenant for that space,” said retail analyst Chris Boring, principal at Boulevard Strategies. “They’re not just filling space.”

With so many visitors, office workers and residents within a block or two of Nationwide Arena and the nearby Greater Columbus Convention Center, “it’s a no-brainer,” Boring said. “There are all kinds of places to eat and drink in the Arena District, but what if you just want a candy bar or a bottle of water? There’s really no place right now for that.”

In related news, the Chicago suburb of Bridgeview just sold another $16 million worth of bonds to help pay off its money-losing Chicago Fire MLS stadium, but this year a new gas station opened nearby.

Happy new year, cities drowning in stadium debt!

Happy new year! The arrival of 2013 means a fresh start, and a time to put the troubles of the past behind — unless, of course, you’re Bridgeview, Illinois:

One of the Chicago area’s most debt-saddled suburbs is borrowing even more money as it tries to put off the worst of its financial pain over the struggling Toyota Park stadium.

The latest borrowing binge — $27 million — will put Bridgeview taxpayers at greater risk of funding an even bigger bailout of the village-owned stadium if it continues to flounder. Municipal finance experts say it is another worrisome sign for a small suburb that took a huge gamble to build the 20,000-seat professional soccer stadium.

As you may recall from past reports here, Bridgeview borrowed $100 million in 2006 to build a new stadium for the Chicago Fire, with the expectation that it would pay it off from stadium revenues. Except that the lease said that all soccer revenues would go to the team, leaving the city with only money from concerts and the like, which haven’t been enough to pay off $100 million in debt. So now Bridgeview keeps borrowing more money to pay off the existing loans, and as the Chicago Tribune reports, “The move comes as Bridgeview officials try to reassure residents in newsletters that do not detail how the downward spiral will be reversed.”

Okay, but it’s a happy new year for everyone else … okay, except maybe Glendale, Arizona:

Glendale, Arizona’s bet on becoming the Phoenix area’s sports and entertainment hub is resulting in higher taxes, fired workers and rising penalties on its debt.

The city confronts new budget cuts after agreeing last month to pay $308 million over the next 20 years to keep the National Hockey League’s Phoenix Coyotes, which had the worst attendance in the NHL last season. After downgrades by both Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s Investors Service that cited the hockey payments, investors demanded a 7.5 percent higher penalty on city debt compared with 11 months ago.

Glendale, of course, just put itself on the hook to pay the Coyotes’ new owner upwards of $12 million a year just to keep his team there, on top of the $12 million a year they’re spending to pay off the arena bonds. Plus the city put in money for infrastructure for the state-built Arizona Cardinals stadium, plus $200 million for a spring training baseball facility. Which all worked out great, if by “great” you mean having to fire large chunks of your city staff while being unable to borrow any more money at less than usurious rates.

Not every stadium and arena deal works out this badly, obviously, and the economic downturn hasn’t helped. (And isn’t going to be helping for a while yet, it looks like.) But if there are any suburbs and small cities out there reading this who had been thinking, “Yeah, a new stadium would totally be a way for us to get noticed!”, it’s worth noting: You might end up getting noticed for reasons you’d prefer not to.

New soccer stadium somehow fails to rain riches on Philly suburb

Hey, remember how a new soccer stadium in Chester, Pennsylvania was doing wonders for the local economy, according to a newspaper article that cited a single local union carpenter as its main source? How’s that working out two years later?

Four years ago, former social-sciences professor John Linder questioned why promoters wanted to “bring soccer to a basketball town.” As mayor since January, he’s been trying to make the $122 million PPL Park, financed mostly with county and state funds, generate enough money to meet the city’s costs.

[Linder] may levy parking and amusement fees on mostly out-of-town fans. He also wants Major League Soccer’s Philadelphia Union to make a $500,000 payment in lieu of taxes that it missed in 2010. The team says it’s negotiating the fee.

“What they’re paying us doesn’t cover our expenses,” Linder said in a telephone interview. “I have a mandate to my citizens that we persevere to get the best bang for our buck.” …

In Chester, 15 miles (24 kilometers) south of Philadelphia, public funds covered about 71 percent of the cost of the stadium for the Union, which is in ninth place in the league’s 10-team Eastern Conference. Related residential projects and a convention center haven’t been built, leaving the city of 34,000 in a program for distressed communities that it entered in 1995. Chester’s poverty rate is almost triple the state average.

There isn’t actually much in the way of economic impact details in this piece — maybe Bloomberg couldn’t find any carpenters to lend their expertise — but the overall picture is certainly less rosy. The best part, meanwhile, is that Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz says he hasn’t paid the back PILOTs he owes the city because nobody sent him a bill.

In related low-income-suburbs-who-thought-it-was-a-good-idea-to-build-soccer-stadiums news, meanwhile, residents of Bridgeview, Illinois, are really steamed about the $200 million in debt their town has racked up, in part by building a new stadium for the Chicago Fire. Best part of this article:

Mayor Steven Landek, who is also an appointed state senator running for election this fall, at first offered to meet privately in the homes of the handful of residents who complained.

But resident Julie Padilla told Landek that her husband was so angry he wouldn’t let Landek in their house, and then she and two other residents asked Landek to hold a public forum. Landek said he would, although no date has been set.

Chicago Fire stadium leaves Bridgeview taxpayers “kicked in the teeth”

It’s not very often that I get five readers emailing me about the same article — but then, it’s not very often that a major U.S. daily newspaper runs an article about a stadium deal with a headline that features the phrase “kicks taxpayers in the teeth”. From Saturday’s Chicago Tribune:

The hulking, red-brick Toyota Park rises impressively from the side of gritty Harlem Avenue, its canopies jutting into the sky. The village-owned stadium is not only home to the Chicago Fire, but also hosts major music shows.

And since opening in 2006, it has come up millions of dollars short of making its huge debt payments. The yearly shortfalls are sometimes as big as the town’s annual police budget, and they’ve helped sink the southwest suburb’s credit rating to among the Chicago area’s worst.

This for a deal that — initially, at least — looked like it might actually work out for the town of Bridgeview, since taxpayers’ $100 million in stadium bonds were supposed to be paid off by stadium revenues. Except that, according to the Tribune, “the final deal called for much of the revenue from soccer games to go to the Chicago Fire, leaving Bridgeview with as much as a $23 million budget hole over the stadium’s first five years — one that could ultimately have to be filled by raising property taxes.

This is why it’s so vitally important who’s on the hook for stadium costs if revenue projections don’t work out — and why it’s crucial in Seattle that prospective arena builder Chris Hansen is actually agreeing to increase rent payments to cover any shortfall in arena revenues.

Bridgeview, though, didn’t get the Fire owners to agree to such a provision, so now they’re getting, well, kicked in the teeth. Not so much, though, the Bridgeview elected officials who approved the deal, who’ve gotten to hand out millions of dollars worth of contracts to favored businesses, as well as use the stadium for fundraisers and enjoy a city-owned luxury suite for watching Jimmy Buffett concerts. If “enjoy” is the right word, that is.