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News/Features - Feature Stories
Tuesday, 31 July 2001 18:00
Minor-league baseball has erupted into a major-league furor in the Quad Cities. On the one hand, Davenport Mayor Phil Yerington has complained about the composition of a task force appointed by Moline Mayor Stan Leach to explore ways to keep professional baseball here when the Quad City River Bandits pack up for Ohio in the next two years.

The task force is full of Moline people, and Yerington fears they won’t give due consideration to trying to find a team for 70-year-old John O’Donnell Stadium, instead favoring a new state-of-the-art facility in their own backyard. But Davenport has balked at shouldering the full cost of stadium improvements that would bring the facility into compliance with standards that must be met before any team affiliated with the major leagues would agree to play in John O’Donnell.

On the other side of the river are task-force members who claim they just want to save baseball while salivating at the prospect of planting a shiny new stadium as another anchor for re-

development in downtown Moline.

But the bitterness on both sides ignores some fundamental questions. Is it wise to spend between $14 million and $20 million to renovate or build a baseball facility – especially when a stadium has few uses beyond baseball? What does minor-league baseball add to a community’s economy?

If those questions are answered, it’s likely that Yerington’s hesitancy to use millions in city money for stadium improvements – instead looking for lower-level baseball alternatives – makes the most sense. While professional baseball certainly has an allure and a self-esteem value – shouldn’t a community this big have a minor-league team? – it remains baseball, not economic development. And is baseball worth $14 million or more to the Quad Cities?

No Parochialism

Negotiations between the City of Davenport and the owner of the River Bandits – Seventh Inning Stretch and its president, Kevin Krause –broke down early this year on a package to renovate John O’Donnell Stadium, the fourth-oldest operating baseball facility in the country. What had originally been $8 million in improvements grew to $14 million, with Krause asking for items such as luxury boxes not required for minor-league facilities by Major League Baseball. Krause said he would be willing to sign a 15-year lease if the improvements were made, but the city and River Bandits were never able to bridge a $4 million funding gap. (The city had agreed to contribute approximately $8 million.)

The collapse of negotiations set a number of things in motion.

In May, Krause agreed to sell the River Bandits to a business owner near Cleveland, Ohio. That same month, Leach announced the formation with Krause of a task force to keep baseball in the Quad Cities. Leach has since decided to have no involvement with the task force, which has met once and has another meeting scheduled for August 14.

Members of the task force swear that they no interest in stealing baseball away from Davenport.

“It has no parochialism to it,” said task-force member Steve Hyman, executive director of The Mark of the Quad Cities.

“I don’t want take it away from Davenport if Davenport really wants it,” said Rick Anderson, also a member of the task force and

executive vice president of the not-for-profit

Renew Moline. “It’s as a Quad Citian that I’m interested. It’s as a baseball fan.”

That posturing doesn’t last long, though. If Davenport felt baseball was so important, several task-force participants argued, improvements to John O’Donnell would have been included as part of the city’s Vision Iowa application.

And members of the task force cast the issue of minor-league baseball in such a way that it would be very difficult for John O’Donnell Stadium to remain in the running as a potential venue.

Bill Adams, a Moline alderman who also serves on the task force, said the baseball group’s goal is to “keep minor-league baseball in the Quad Cities in a state-of-the-art facility.” Others stress that they want a major-league-affiliated minor-league team, thus invoking the costly stadium requirements Major League Baseball imposed on the minor leagues a

decade ago. (A minor-league club affiliated with a major-league team is part of the big-league farm system, while independent leagues have no relationship with Major League Baseball. A player on an affiliated team has a better chance of making it to the majors than an independent-leaguer, although in Class A ball, they both face long odds. The River Bandits are affiliated with the Minnesota Twins.)

Task-force members also note that in addition to meeting ballpark standards, John O’Donnell Stadium would need to be flood-proofed before any self-respecting minor-league team would play there.

They don’t shy away from highlighting the stadium’s other deficiencies, either. “I’m disappointed when people say John O’Donnell is a class stadium,” Anderson said. “It’s not.” Anderson said Davenport could keep the stadium façade but would need to gut John O’Donnell and re-build it before the stadium would be attractive to a minor-league team. That would, of course, cost at least as much as the $14 million renovation package.

And that leads to talk of a new stadium. When a new, top-of-the-line minor-league stadium can be built for less than $20 million, Hyman said, “why the hell would you put $15 million into an old one?”

A better question might be: Why put any public money into any baseball stadium?

What Economic Impact?

In the 1997 book Sports, Jobs, & Taxes: The Economic Impact of Sports Teams & Stadiums, economists Robert A. Baade and Allen R. Sanderson claim that a new minor-league team or stadium is unlikely to have any statistically significant effect on a local economy.

The book made a minor splash when it was published, because professional sports franchises were holding communities hostage, threatening to leave if a host city didn’t build a new amenity-packed stadium. But Sports, Jobs, & Taxes studied the economic impact of new major-league stadiums and teams on big-city economies and found very little. Almost without fail, new stadiums are financed on the backs of taxpayers, and their economic impact – if it exists at all – is far less than the tax money used to build the facility. Without any economic justification for massive public expenditures on stadiums, the book’s contributors conclude, communities fall back on widespread fan support as a rationale.

The chapter by Baade and Sanderson answers the question Quad Cities leaders should be asking themselves: Does minor-league baseball have an economic impact on the local economy?

The answer: Not really.

“Despite growing scholarly evidence that professional sports teams do not contribute significantly to a community’s economy, supporters of stadium subventions in both the major and minor leagues persist in using the promise of substantial stadium-induced economic activity as a rationale for them,” the authors write.

It’s not hard to find claims of baseball as economic-development tool in the Quad Cities. Krause tied a new stadium to better attendance, resulting in more money being spent. “There’s a huge correlation between the type of facility and the attendance,” he said.

And in a May editorial, The Quad City Times opined, “By next season, eight of the 12 teams [in the Midwest League] will be playing in new or nearly new stadiums. The newer facilities, all located in communities smaller than the Quad Cities, are drawing much larger crowds, and other businesses have opened nearby because of the stadium investment, thus multiplying the local economic benefits. In fact, this is a trend in minor league cities all over the nation.”

Baade and Sanderson disagree. While a 1990 mandate from Major League Baseball has forced many minor-league communities to build new stadiums, and those stadiums in the short run draw larger crowds than older facilities, evidence suggests there are few if any community-wide or even neighborhood-wide economic benefits to these new arenas.

“The realistic economic experience of minor-league communities is likely to fall short of the rosy scenarios so often portrayed in impact studies and presentations made to (and by) local public officials,” the authors conclude.

Sanderson, a sports economist at the University of Chicago, told the River Cities’ Reader that two major factors keep stadiums and sports from adding much to the local economy: the substitution effect, and the fact that sports facilities aren’t open very much.

The substitution effect, simply, is the concept that people spend their money among available alternatives. Adding or taking away an alternative – such as baseball – will rarely impact total economic activity. “We’re going to spend the same amount of money,” he said.

Just as important, a baseball stadium might generate activity at game time, but “it’s just closed [nearly] all the time.” As a result, sports teams – even in the major leagues – tend to be “quite small economic entities” in the context of their communities.

Among other evidence, Baade and Sanderson provide four representative case studies supporting this conclusion, including the story of LaCrosse, Wisconsin. “Some leaders in this community of 50,000 proposed building a stadium to attract a Class A Midwest League franchise,” they write. “Supporters of a public subsidy estimated the team would add $4.3 million to the city’s economy annually. Three economists from the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse performed their own analysis and estimated spending injections of $478,083 for LaCrosse and 30.5 new jobs for the entire region. With the stadium construction costs estimated at $3.595 million, each job would cost more than $100,000 to create. For communities large and small, this represents a very expensive job-creation program.”

“Sports stadiums tend to have pretty low rates of return,” Sanderson said.

So why do communities continue to shell out millions of dollars for them? Sanderson said it’s simple supply and demand; there’s a finite number of teams available. “Cities tend to lose,” he said. “You’re negotiating against something that’s in very short supply. … That changes the bargaining leverage.”

For baseball to have a big economic impact, it would need to draw a lot of people from outside the community. But that generally doesn’t happen. “In terms of tourism, minor-league sports are not big attractions,” said Joe Taylor, director of the Quad Cities Convention and Visitors Bureau and a task-force member. “It’s local residents turning out for games.”

But baseball does have a value, he said, improving quality of life and adding to the amenity base that keeps Quad Cities residents living and spending here.

Anderson acknowledged that it might be difficult to determine the economic impact of a new stadium. “By itself … that wouldn’t be the only thing that would draw people to our community,” he said. “Sometimes, if you look only at the bottom line, that’s not looking at the entire impact it has on your area. It’s part of a total package.”

Anderson said he supports an “honest” feasibility study. “I don’t think it would be good to hire a consultant to tell us what we want to know,” he said. “I already know what I want.” The task force might discuss a feasibility study at its August 14 meeting.

Baade and Sanderson suggest that new minor-league baseball teams might actually hurt the local economy. “To the extent that minor-league baseball replaces locally owned and operated leisure businesses, baseball could actually have a deleterious effect on the local economy,” they write. Minor-league teams have also become more nomadic, willing to seek out better deals from other communities. For that reason, any city that builds a stadium risks being abandoned whenever the lease is up, and minor-league leases tend to last about five years.

In fact, the only people enriched in minor-league baseball, it seems, are the owners. While minor-league teams have thin profit margins or operate at losses, and while they seemingly have little economic impact on their communities, team values have grown tremendously, Baade and Sanderson write.

If the impact of minor-league baseball cannot be quantified, how can the public ever get behind public financing? That’s an answer those who want to build new stadiums need to provide, according to the authors: “It should also be recognized that since private minor-league interests seek public funding for their infrastructure, the burden of proof is on them to demonstrate that baseball does have a statistically significant impact, or at least an impact sufficient to justify the use of public funds.”

The Next Step

Without an economic justification for a new stadium, backers of minor-league baseball in the Quad Cities fall back on vague statements about quality of life and making the Quad Cities attractive to potential employers and employees.

“It adds to the enjoyment and pleasure of life in any area,” Anderson said. “This is another amenity.”

“The last place I would move is a place without a baseball team,” Adams said.

The Quad Cities would not lose the “amenity” of baseball if Yerington is successful in bringing a team from the Frontier League or another independent outfit to the Quad Cities. Yerington has said independent-league teams understand that baseball is family entertainment and have added activities and promotions to appeal to both parents and children. High-school, college, or American Legion ball – as well as other events – could fill out the schedule, getting more use out of the stadium.

Yet that’s not good enough for the task force.

“I just wish Davenport would set its sights a little higher,” Anderson said.

Members of Leach’s task force chant the refrain of wanting a major-league-affiliated minor-league team. Anderson noted that St. Louis Cardinals star rookie Albert Pujols was playing affiliated Class A ball last year.

Hyman said that if Yerington gets his way, the Quad Cities will be left with “some shit-league team playing in an old building.”

But this is splitting hairs. Few major-leaguers come from Class A teams, affiliated or not. “I don’t see any difference,” Sanderson said. Players in Class A are “just trying to postpone becoming adults,” he added.

But Anderson said an independent-league team won’t stay in Davenport, either. The way he sees it, eventually Davenport officials will recognize John O’Donnell Stadium as deficient for professional baseball. A Frontier League team might locate in Davenport, he said, but it will leave in a few years, perhaps because of park conditions or because of flooding or the annual threat of it.

It seems that nobody on Leach’s task force is willing to give John O’Donnell Stadium a chance. And that’s because they want a new stadium.

Adams, like other members of the task force, claims he doesn’t care where the stadium is situated. Yet he names the Frank Foundry property owned by Heart of America and Moline Consumers between Interstate 74 and Ben Butterworth Parkway as a possible site for a new ballpark.

And he’s not the only one.

“The Frank Foundry site seems very attractive to us,” said Krause, who hopes to buy another minor-league team to bring to the Quad Cities. (“This is not a build-a-stadium-for-Kevin campaign,” Adams said.)

“I would love to see a stadium right off I-74,” Anderson said. Later, when the subject of the Frank Foundry site was raised, he added, “Casually, that’s been mentioned. … We look at it as kind of being an ideal site.”

Oscar Ellis of Moline Consumers said there have been some discussions about selling the property. But the impending realignment of the Interstate 74 bridge makes any discussion of putting a baseball stadium there premature. “There’s really no way you can site something until you know what’s going to happen with the bridge,” Ellis said.

Adams spent nine years as chair of the Quad City Civic Center Authority, leading it from the conception of The Mark to operation. He said that it’s unlikely – and getting unlikelier by the day – that the Quad Cities can build a new stadium in time for a team to play here in 2003. (Four years passed between the site being chosen for The Mark and its completion, he said.)

That means there will be an interruption of minor-league baseball in the Quad Cities, unless Yerington can land a team for John O’Donnell Stadium.

But the task force has made clear it’s not interested in John O’Donnell Stadium unless Davenport puts some money into it. “You can’t say you’re going to support something if you can’t afford to,” Hyman said of Davenport’s financial situation.

Task-force members are being smart on the monetary level. If the decision is made to pursue construction of a new ballpark, it would be publicly funded, but Moline taxpayers would not be asked to directly foot the bill. Instead of taking money for a stadium out of property-tax revenues, Adams said, the city would look at private investors, Tax Increment Financing, and state money earmarked for sports facilities.

There’s one major problem to that scenario: There is no pile of state money for a baseball stadium.

Illinois state Senator Denny Jacobs (D-Moline) is also a member of Leach’s task force. Jacobs said that while there has been discussion in the legislature about state money to help new or existing sports facilities, there is “no actual money set aside” at this point. “I think it would have to be attached to something else … something the big guys want.” Jacobs said that might mean packaging stadium funds for the Quad Cities with some Chicago project, or perhaps even a larger Moline initiative.

The legislature could take up the issue next year, but its prospects might hinge on “whether the legislature is in a philanthropic mood,” Jacobs said. Next year’s elections will be the first with the state’s new legislative districts, and that might make lawmakers a little more generous, trying to win over their new constituents.

At this point, though, Jacobs pegged odds of state stadium funds for the Quad Cities as low. “At best it’s probably a 30 percent chance,” he said.

There are other pots of state money – such as the Department of Commerce and Community Affairs – but none that might take a major bite out of the $15-million to $20-million price tag for a new stadium.

Even if there were state money for a new stadium, it would be wise to step back and do some hard thinking. Is a shiny new stadium and a team with major-league affiliation worth $15 million or $20 million, even if there’s no guarantee that it will have any other impact?

Yerington’s philosophy starts to look good.
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