Fields of dreamers

Everybody knows the Tampa Bay Devil Rays are a joke. With a 63-99 record, the team wound up this season in last place in the American League East, 38 games behind the AL champion New York Yankees. Not surprisingly, Tampa Bay was second-to-last in attendance behind the lowly Expos, who have been openly shopping for a new home for more than a year.

The Florida Marlins, on the other hand, were baseball's best this year. They finished with a 91-71 record, beat the Chicago Cubs in a gut-wrenching seven-game playoff series, then took down the Yankees in the World Series. Yet fans thumbed their noses at the team; the Marlins wound up third-to-last in regular season attendance, with just 1.3 million spectators -- or 16,290 fans per game -- paying admission.

Yet those stats don't seem to deter Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer from his quest to bring baseball to Orlando, preferably housed in a new stadium built in the heart of downtown. Last month, in an interview discussing a broad range of topics, Dyer told Orlando Weekly he hoped any goodwill he may have accumulated in the handling of the city's budget crises -- which included laying off 200 employees -- would help persuade voters to support building a stadium.

"I think a lot of things are doable, but you have to build on your successes," said Dyer, a first baseman for his high school team, the Osceola Kowboys. "I just can't run out there and say, 'OK, I'm building a baseball stadium out there tomorrow.' In reality, what we did in the first six months with the budget has laid a solid foundation for everything else we are going to do because the citizens now understand that I'm not some wild-eyed liberal Democrat. I'm somebody that can manage a budget and make the tough calls."

In late September, Dyer met with Antonio Munoz, a promoter with the Expos who lives in Puerto Rico, where the Expos played 22 games last season. Munoz is hoping that if the Expos relocate permanently to Puerto Rico, they can play half of their games in the United States, perhaps in Orlando. Dyer seems committed to a number of avenues to bring baseball to Orlando, including pursuing a historic preservation designation for Tinker Field so the old ball field, located in the shadow of the Citrus Bowl, can undergo a much-needed renovation.

Even so, the gleam in Dyer's eye reveals that he would prefer a baseball stadium -- minor- or major-league -- somewhere downtown. Where can the city afford land for a stadium?

"There are a couple of places to build baseball fields downtown," he says. Of course, if he says exactly where, land prices will jump dramatically, the supply price rising to meet the demand of assembling the property.

Just the right time

There are cities that swear they have been transformed by the power of baseball. Dayton, Ohio, for example, saw development rise after the $22 million, 7,200-seat Fifth Third Field opened in 2000. With 590,000 spectators in the stands, the Dayton Dragons broke season attendance records for the Midwest League and for single-A baseball -- and the team didn't even make the playoffs. According to Dean Lovelace, a University of Dayton consultant and Dayton city commissioner, the ballpark prompted public and private development. The city spent $21.1 million to construct RiverScape Park along the Great Miami River, where it hosts a Fourth of July celebration, among other events. An information technology company, Relizon, moved into an old Sears building near the stadium site. A couple of restaurants have opened in the formerly dilapidated area, and two farmers markets have attracted shoppers from all over the region. "This was just the right thing for Dayton at just the right time," Lovelace says.

Louisville, Ky., saw development spring up around its $27.8 million, 13,600-seat stadium, Louisville Slugger Field. According to Patti Clare, the director of project development for the Louisville Downtown Development Corp., the stadium was instrumental in converting warehouses in the area to residential and office uses. The city added a $75 million waterfront park with running paths and playgrounds overlooking the Ohio River. "Slugger Field has become the venue of choice for a lot of downtown events," Clare says. "It's the beginning and ending place for street runs and people host street fairs there. It's a real gathering place."

Still, stadiums are widely considered a bad investment. More often than not they fail to provide the economic spark they promise. Instead taxpayers get few jobs, no spin-off development and a huge tax burden. "There's really no evidence that supports them as an engine of economic development," says Centre College economist Bruce Johnson, who has written about publicly funded stadiums. "Economists never agree on anything. But there's a ton of research on this topic. Every reputable study supports the notion that stadiums do not generate jobs and are a bad investment for taxpayers."

An article in a 2001 issue of the "Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City Economic Review" estimates that Major League Baseball teams generate for a host city an average of $39.9 million in taxes and job creation per season. But the same article, titled "What are the Benefits of Hosting a Major League Sports Franchise?" estimates that host cities pay hundreds of millions of dollars annually in added municipal services and debt payment, putting their net loss at about $50 million on average.

But what about the civic pride and enthusiasm that comes with having a pro sports team? Even stadium critics concede that a city's quality of life is enhanced when citizens have a team to rally around.

But Johnson says he has proof that's not the case. In a study he plans to release early next year, he says residents of cities like Jacksonville point to team pride as important for the city. Until they see the price tag.

"People will say civic pride is important, but they're not willing to pay for it," Johnson says. He puts the value of civic pride associated with Minor League Baseball right at about $0. The reason? "You can't brag to out-of-town relatives because they've never heard of your team or they don't care," Johnson says. "You'll have to look to other things to make you proud."

Former Downtown Development Board director Tom Kohler estimates a baseball stadium will cost about $20 million. Assembling land near downtown will cost almost as much the stadium itself, making the $40 million price tag steep for a city that just fired 200 workers.

"In two years, a stadium is old anyway," says orthopedic surgeon Tom Winters, who is working with a team of financiers -- including football great Jack Youngblood and Baseball Hall of Fame nominee Frank Viola -- to bring a single-A Florida State League team here. "The city is in a financial crisis. It's just laid off a bunch of workers, things like that."

Winters, who expects to finalize a deal in the off-season, wants his team in a refurbished Tinker Field, where greats like Babe Ruth have played since 1914. "I think if Mayor Dyer had his druthers he'd want a new ballpark so there'd be a lot of people walking around downtown after the game," says Winters, who was part-owner of the Orlando Predators and now-defunct Orlando Thunder football teams. "But that's not the best option right now. We can play at Tinker, which is only a mile [from downtown]. We might even have buses going back and forth from a newly fixed Church Street Station or from places where people can eat dinner."

Last spring, Dyer and Congressman Ric Keller announced plans to obtain a National Register of Historic Places designation for Tinker, which would clear the way for millions of dollars in Federal Historic Preservation funds. The field needs new bleachers and seats, among other things. "There's millions of dollars available," says Keller spokesman Bryan Malenius. "It depends on what you want to do with the facility. If you want to build a museum, there's grant money for that. If you want lighting in the neighborhood, there's money for that."

That should buy Dyer time to see how Orlando residents interact with a baseball team. Results from the city's last team, the Rays, weren't promising. The team, which departed after this season to become the Montgomery Biscuits, was dead last in attendance in the single-A Southern League. Only 2,382 fans showed up, on average, to see the Rays play 63 games at Disney's Cracker Jack Stadium. Imagine what those fans would look like sitting in Boston's Fenway Park, which, at 34,000 seats, is the smallest park in the major leagues.

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