Boston Globe
The New York Times
The Washington Post
Springfield Republican
NYU Physician Magazine
UMass Amherst Magazine
Mount Holyoke College
OnWisconsin (UW Alumni Magazine)
Amherst College
Smith College
Tufts University
Tulane University
Wesleyan University
University of Texas
Other Publications
Magazine Articles
At Home Features
Opinion / Analysis / Essays

October 17, 1999, Sunday

National Desk 
Debating Stadium Costs and Benefits
By The New York Times 

SPRINGFIELD, Mass., Oct. 16 - If Michael Graney has his way, this perennial second city will be looking for a band of young men to banish its chronic inferiority complex and improve the economy.

Their job: throwing, catching and hitting for a still unnamed minor-league expansion team in an as-yet-unbuilt $21.3 million stadium called Peter Pan Park.

But some in this industrial city long overshadowed by Boston say the plan will not work, and a referendum to stop the project is gaining support.

"This proposal just doesn't make sense," said Richard Stebbins, a leading opponent of the 5,300-seat stadium.

"It is a travesty to mortgage some of our economic future for a facility that will be used about 200 hours a year," said Mr. Stebbins, a retired banker.

Cities across the nation are struggling with the question of whether new sports complexes will be economic boons or boondoggles. In this decade, 46 major league stadiums and arenas have been built or renovated for teams in the four principal professional sports leagues, and 49 more are under construction or in the planning stages, said Andrew Zimbalist, sports economist at Smith College, about 20 miles north of Springfield.

The cost/benefit analysis goes beyond the bottom line, with civic pride and family entertainment all fitting into the mix. But the question often boils down to who will pay for the infrastructure.

Even when governments pay, there are no guarantees, as Hartford, Conn., learned this spring. The Connecticut Legislature agreed to pay for a new $375 million stadium after the New England Patriots said it would move to Hartford, 26 miles downriver from Springfield. But when the football team received another offer from Massachusetts, it decided to stay put.

Cities that want to get in on a boom in minor league baseball face similar issues. In the case of Springfield, the city is putting up $2 million and the state has promised $4 million in transportation and economic development grants to get the site ready for a team from the Northern League, which is not affiliated with Major League Baseball.

Mr. Graney, president of the nonprofit Springfield Baseball Corporation, which would own the team, says the mostly private financing sources his group assembled insulate taxpayers from risk.

But Mr. Stebbins said debt service on bonds and loans alone would exceed revenue even if optimistic attendance figures of 4,200 per game held, insuring that the city would never attract a quality ball club to its stadium.

The grants promised by the state would come at the expense of potentially more productive projects, Mr. Stebbins said.

The City Council recently voted 6 to 3 to use eminent domain to take the proposed site for the stadium, a shopping center in the shadow of two interstate highways. But a group called Citizens Action Network is mounting a petition drive to force a referendum to block the project, and the seizure is being fought by some merchants and the owners of the shopping center.

This is the fifth effort in five years to find a minor league team for Springfield, which had professional baseball on and off from 1902 until its ball park burned down in 1965. In 1995 a deal was all but done with a group of investors who had bought Pennsylvania's Harrisburg Senators of the Eastern League for $4.1 million. When Harrisburg officials heard of the deal, they complained to the league and were able, at the last minute, to buy the club for $6.7 million.

"They've been to the altar many times," said Andrew Linker, a sportswriter for The Harrisburg Patriot-News, an observer of Springfield's travails.

This time, Mr. Stebbins said, the city's power brokers "have fallen in love with the allure of baseball." He added that the stadium was destined to become a white elephant, an assessment shared by Professor Zimbalist.

New stadiums, whether for the minor or major leagues, are never sound investments, Professor Zimbalist said, and the Springfield plan is especially ill-conceived because almost a quarter of the proposed budget is for seizing property and relocating 16 businesses.

Mr. Graney contends that the stadium will increase traffic for local businesses as part of a broad revitalization effort that includes expanding the Basketball Hall of Fame, building a new convention center and reviving two downtown theaters.

The team will give the city a "psychological boost," he said.

The stadium, planned to open in 2001, is supported by the Mayor and a majority of the City Council. It is being designed by HOK Sports Facilities Group, responsible for high-profile projects like Camden Yards in Baltimore and the proposed new Fenway Park in Boston.

One supporter, Peter Picknelly Sr., owns the Peter Pan Bus Lines, a long-distance service based in Springfield. He has promised a $3 million donation of his own money to the project, and his company is buying naming rights for $1 million more.

Mr. Picknelly's father named what was then a jitney company with two vehicles for his son 65 years ago. His mother was reading the story of Peter Pan to the 3-year-old Peter, and his parents decided he resembled the fabled boy who refused to grow up.

All articles © Eric Goldscheider

(413) 835-1248 -