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Field Of Schemes Can cities find fiscal happiness in the minors?

June 15, 1998
June 15, 1998

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June 15, 1998

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Field Of Schemes Can cities find fiscal happiness in the minors?

The civic motto of Trenton, N.J.--TRENTON MAKES, THE WORLD
TAKES--is displayed on a sign over the Delaware River. But for
several decades manufacturing jobs have skipped town, and this
city of almost 90,000 has been fibrillating with crime, drugs
and unemployment. In search of an engine for urban renewal, the
city took a swing at minor league baseball. In 1994 Trenton
constructed an $18 million stadium that it leases to the
Thunder, the Double A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. In two of
four seasons the average attendance has exceeded the stadium's
seating capacity of 6,341.

This is an article from the June 15, 1998 issue

"The Thunder has been great for the area," says general manager
Wayne Hodes. "Our average ticket is $6, but the county estimates
that each fan contributes $36 to the local economy. It's at the
point now where Trenton will have a minor league hockey team in
1999 and is bidding for a CBA team, too."

In blighted towns such as Trenton that are desperate for
economic nourishment, minor league teams are growing like Jack's
beanstalk. New Jersey alone has six minor league baseball teams;
as recently as 1993 the state had none. There are now seven
independent leagues made up of teams unaffiliated with a parent
club in the majors, so a city willing to fund stadium
construction faces few barriers to entry.

"This was an outstanding opportunity for our community," says
Joseph Ganim, the mayor of beleaguered Bridgeport, Conn., home
to the Bluefish, a new franchise in the independent Atlantic
League.

How outstanding is a matter of debate. While politicians and
team owners trumpet minor league baseball as an economic
panacea, others wonder if they are not modern-day Music Men,
bilking vulnerable cities with illusory promises. "I liken it to
Pascal's wager," says Robert Baade, an economist at Lake Forest
(Ill.) College who specializes in sports financing. "Pascal in
effect said he believed in God because he couldn't take a chance
that He didn't exist. Well, communities believe in economic
development through sports because they can't take a chance
there isn't some. The evidence, though, clearly shows that
sports aren't the tool for revitalization that boosters contend."

Why? For one thing, minor league teams have developed the same
edifice complex as their major league counterparts.
Taxpayer-financed stadiums are the norm these days, and teams
that are lucky to gross $1 million a year are playing in
state-of-the-art facilities, replete with skyboxes. Sioux City,
Iowa, for instance, built a $3.5 million complex in 1993 that
requires annual debt payments of about $400,000. The baseball
tenant, the Explorers, expects to return roughly $125,000 this
season, leaving the city short by nearly $300,000.

There's also the question of how much ancillary commerce minor
league teams bring to a city. Fans will part with only so many
bucks to watch upstarts run out ground balls, and they may
simply be transferring their entertainment dollars from, say,
the movie theater to the local team.

On the other hand the virtues of minor league baseball might
transcend statistics and numbers. A successful team that builds
civic pride may pay untold dividends in the future. "All I know
is that my mother, who's no sports fan, is in the stands
cheering like crazy for the Bluefish," says Ganim. "When I see
that, I can't help but be optimistic about what this team will
do for the community."

In blighted towns, minor league teams are growing like Jack's
beanstalk.