Monday, September 04, 2000

Columbus debates home for Clippers




By Joe Milicia
The Associated Press

        COLUMBUS — If New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner has his way, his top minor-league team will get a $35 million stadium downtown.

        If Columbus Clippers fan Larry Horn has a say, the team will stay at 78-year-old Cooper Stadium, next to a cemetery and some automotive businesses just west of downtown.

        “As a Franklin County taxpayer,” he said, pausing to watch the Clippers turn a double play, “I'd rather see them put $15 million in investment in this area.”

        If the county decides not to build, it not only will be bucking the blustery owner's request, but a major trend in minor-league baseball.

        Since 1990, 71 minor-league ballparks have been built across the country despite studies that show such investments are of little economic benefit to cities.

        Sports economist Allen Sanderson said communities should not look at ballparks, major- or minor-league, to help increase employment or tax revenue. The University of Chicago professor said minor-league parks don't bring new money to a city; they just alter where people spend their entertainment dollars.

        “If they don't go to the minor-league baseball game, they'll go to the mall or a movie theater or restaurant. I think the net gains are fairly modest,” he said.

        Minor-league ballparks have even less of an effect than major-league parks because they don't draw people from outside the region, said Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College in Northampton, Mass.

        Akron officials said their minor-league ballpark proves the contrary.

        “We heard all that when we were building it, but you can't argue with it if you come to downtown,” said city spokesman Mark Williamson.

        Akron spent more than $25 million, plus almost $6 million in state money, to build Canal Park in 1997 in a blighted area downtown. The Cleveland Indians' Double-A affiliate moved there from nearby Canton and has been packing in fans.

        The stadium has led to 14 new bars and restaurants, 200 new jobs, $750,000 a year in income taxes and $250,000 annually in real estate taxes, according to the city's economic development office.

        “It became one of the cornerstones with creating the missing ingredient downtown, which is entertainment,” said Mark Albrecht, economic development manager.

        Mr. Williamson said the park created confidence in the region.

        “We actually have people arguing over space downtown. We're now at a point where we have to mediate when more than one developer is interested in the same piece of property. For 30 years in Akron that didn't happen.”

        Diane Robinson has opened Treva and Piatto, two upscale restaurants near Canal Park. She said she committed to Treva in 1993, when the downtown still was dotted with boarded up buildings.

        “It doesn't directly affect our business, but I believe it gives people a sense of security,” she said of the stadium. “People are comfortable coming downtown again.”

        Like Akron, both Dayton and Niles have attracted minor-league baseball in the last few years. A $37 million ball park that will move the Toledo Mud Hens from suburban Maumee to downtown Toledo, will open in 2002.

        In Dayton, people don't go to Who's on First deli after games but its lunch business has picked up, said owner Gena Cron. She thinks that's because her restaurant has more visibility from increased traffic around the stadium, about a block away from her First Street site.

        “We expected to get slaughtered and rich, but it's been a nice steady amount of business,” Ms. Cron said.

        Mr. Sanderson said a big reason for the stadium boom is a 1990 operating agreement in which major-league teams pressured affiliates to build new parks and reduce the drain on the parent club.

        The agreement dictated everything from the number of shower heads in locker rooms to power of outdoor lighting, said Jim Ferguson, spokesman for Minor League Baseball.

        “What we've ended up with is many of the stadiums turned out to be miniature major-league stadiums with the amenities,” he said.

       



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