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March 18, 2007

Of Elephants and Fish

The A's and Marlins Seek to Complete MLB's Stadium Sweep

by Neil deMause

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If you want some perspective on just how much the new-stadium boom has transformed the face of baseball, try this on for size: By Opening Day 2009, the fourth-oldest major-league baseball stadium will be Angel Stadium of Anaheim. The Big A opened way back on April 19, 1966, meaning that if Tom Glavine were a stadium, he'd be the fourth-oldest instead; Julio Franco would rank third.

With so many teams sporting new homes, and the Cubs, Red Sox, Dodgers, and Angels apparently content for now with their newly renovated digs, the list of stadium-hungry teams is down to two for the moment: the Oakland A's and the Florida Marlins. Both are in the midst of new stadium pushes, with the Marlins seemingly on the ascendent, while the A's have moved to the backburner. Given the raft of uncertainties involved, it's still a crapshoot as to which, if either, will move forward first.

OAKLAND A'S

When last we left off with the green-and-gold, new owner/real estate developer Lew Wolff was excitedly announcing plans for a 30,000-or-so-seat stadium in the southern East Bay city of Fremont, surrounded by a new development of 2,900 condos and an upscale mall. Four months later, plans are still all Wolff has: No hint of financial details have been revealed, and talks with both Fremont officials and the owners of the land are reportedly still ongoing.

What's being negotiated, no doubt, are not just the parameters of the unusual "ballpark village" development--the land is currently zoned for commercial and industrial space--but also the extent of the tax breaks that Wolff will demand as part of the deal. While Wolff has been quick to play the "privately financed" card, an A's press release back in November indicated that the team would be asking that "benefits generated solely by the development will in part or in total be used to facilitate the development program."

What's that in English? "This project is ripe for public subsidies, because of its location in a redevelopment area," explains development expert Howard Greenwich of the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy. Established in the 1970s for redevelopment of a "blighted" area--itself an odd designation for an undeveloped patch of land in a well-off suburb--the district would allow Wolff to use "tax increment financing," where any new property taxes would be kicked back to the developer to pay for construction costs.

Since the Fremont land is currently undeveloped, virtually all property tax money would be "new," making a TIF deal look enticingly like a free lunch. Yet new residents would require new services--police, fire, schools, roads--and wouldn't be generating new taxes to pay for them. This is the "untold story" behind incremental tax subsidies, says Greenwich, who estimates that 10% of California's entire land value (including the entire city of Emeryville, home of Pixar) is currently tied up in TIFs.

Even if the financing hurdle is cleared, the A's stadium would still face other problems. First off, much of the site is adjacent to wetlands, which would lead to a likely environmental lawsuit--though in California, building pretty much anywhere is likely to lead to a environmental lawsuit. A potentially bigger headache is how fans will get there: The single highway (I-880) that runs near there is already jammed to capacity during the evening rush, and the BART mass transit line currently ends some five miles away. An extension has been proposed, but even if built it still would require fans to take a shuttle bus from the station to the ballpark.

With all this to resolve--and I haven't even mentioned the toxic gas plant--don't be surprised if a formal stadium proposal comes later rather than sooner. "It's a big deal, not just to put the stadium in Fremont, but to build this whole ballpark village," says Greenwich. Fremont officials, he adds, are known for taking their time with city planning issues: "This is not a city that's going to roll over."

FLORIDA MARLINS

While researching this piece, I ran across a news article from the New York Times that began:

The Florida Marlins agreed with city and Dade County officials to build a retractable-roof ballpark in downtown Miami so the team can stop sharing a stadium used for football, the Marlins' Web site said.

The Marlins' owner, John Henry, said at a news conference that the team would be renamed the Miami Marlins.

Huh, I thought, I hadn't realized that the Marlins were still going to be renamed ... hey, wait--John Henry? What the?

I checked the publication date on the article: December 18, 2000.

The Marlins haven't quite been looking for a new stadium ever since opening the old one, but it's awfully close. The search has continued unabated as the team changed hands from Wayne Huizenga to Henry to Jeffrey Loria, with each stadium chase waxing and waning with the state legislative season. The current plan is for another low-capacity stadium, at just 37,000 seats; clearly the race to recreate the "Fenway Effect" is on in earnest, though it could just as easily be called the "Jacobs Field Effect," since the Indians were the first team to reap the benefits of year-long sellouts. (Which disappeared in a flash once the team stopped winning and fans realized they no longer needed to scramble for tickets--but baseball team owners are seldom ones to plan for failure.)

Along the way, there have been "agreements" aplenty, but no actual steel going in the ground. The state legislature has been the usual holdup, proving reluctant to supply funds to fill a funding gap that has remained oddly consistent at $30 million, even as the overall price tag has risen from $325 million to $490 million. (Many press reports call it a $60 million state subsidy, since the tax break would be $2 million a year for 30 years, but it would only pay off $30 million in present-day construction costs.) One qualm has been that the state already gave a similar subsidy to Huizenga when he owned the team; unfortunately, he took it with him when he sold to Henry, and now the Marlins are back for more.

Speculation is rampant that this could be the Marlins' year in the legislature, mostly because a new governor (Charlie Crist) and state house speaker (Marco Rubio, who represents West Miami), both backers of the stadium deal, came on board in November. (As with New England weather, if a sports team owner doesn't like the elected officials he's facing, he can usually just wait five minutes until they change.) It's certainly not because anything has changed to make the deal more alluring for the public: The Marlins' stadium-threat tour last year fizzled, and officials in San Antonio, the Fish's favorite relocation footsie partner, recently declared they were throwing in the towel on luring another pro team--making it more than a tad ironic that the same day, Miami-Dade County Manager George Burgess warned the legislative committees that "if the Marlins don't have anything to move to by 2011 ... they won't be in the state."

At this point, the more significant obstacle for the Marlins could be finding a site. The city initially targeted a lot adjacent to the old Miami Arena, but there wasn't enough land available. Last year, attention turned to Hialeah, several miles to the north, something neither the Marlins nor MLB were too excited about--at which point Miami jumped back in with a different downtown site a few blocks from the first. Unfortunately, that site was still on the small side, just nine acres, tiny for any modern stadium, let alone one with the retractable roof Loria insists he needs. It was also already slated to be the home of a new children's courthouse, which didn't please the judges who faced losing their new digs for the sake of some guys in teal pinstripes.

The latest plan is to let the University of Miami football team, which has been threatening to leave the Orange Bowl anyway, depart for Dolphin Stadium, then raze the 71-year-old stadium and replace it with a Marlins dome. But while this might work in terms of finances, says stadium architect Rolando Llanes, who consulted for the Marlins during the John Henry days, it's terrible urban planning. "The atmosphere of the Orange Bowl is second to none--it's just classic for football," he says. Moreover, the surrounding neighborhood is mostly two-story residences, which is not necessarily the best surrounding for an 81-days-a-year sports facility.

"I just think it's insanity to tear down the Orange Bowl, and build a baseball stadium in that neighborhood," says Llanes. "Wrigley Field would work great there, but I know that's not what they're going to build there--they're going to build an airplane hangar."

In any case, the Orange Bowl plan has only been on the table for a matter of weeks, meaning there's a significant chance the Marlins could end up with a financing plan, but no site. If that sounds familiar, it's because it's exactly where the Minnesota Twins find themselves, with a significant possibility that they may have to go back to the drawing board if their preferred site ends up being unaffordable. To butcher a Yogiism, in stadium deals, it ain't over till the fat lady starts up the bulldozers.

THE SCORECARD

So what does all this mean for baseball fans and taxpayers? On the dead-presidents tip, the Marlins are proposing a traditional "public-private" split, with the emphasis on the public--Loria would put up about 42% of the cost, and presumably reap all the new cash flow, though how the lease will divvy up revenues is another matter that's apparently being put off till later. In the A's case, Wolff is shooting for a new-wave deal that is more about using the stadium as a carrot to get a publicity-hungry city to grant permission for a lucrative land deal. It doesn't hurt that it would allow him to maximize the revenue-sharing deduction the A's get as a result, since all construction costs would be paid by the team, even if much of it would be recouped by other means.

For fans, the picture is less rosy, as both teams look to be picking sites solely on the basis of what's the most politically and financially feasible, regardless of whether anyone will be able to get there without relying on Humphrey Go-Bart. And as for the two teams' on-field fortunes, neither stadium is expected to launch its inhabitant into the upper revenue stratosphere--Marlins president David Samson declared last month that the team's payroll "would not go up at all during construction" of a new stadium, and would be "average" once the new park opened.

Of course, "average" plus, say, a Jeremy Hermida breakout could be enough to send the Fish to the postseason. Stranger things have happened before--which might leave you wondering why a half-billion-dollar stadium is needed to make them happen again, but hey, that's modern baseball for you.

Neil deMause is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Neil's other articles. You can contact Neil by clicking here

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