3 Alabama cities have invested more than $ 100 million in baseball stadiums
Alabama’s three cities with minor league baseball teams have together invested more than $ 100 million in building taxpayer-funded stadiums with ambitions of economic growth beyond baseball.
Birmingham and Montgomery have seen the benefits of these investments as newcomer Madison has enjoyed extraordinary prosperity so far even before their Rocket City Trash Pandas have played a single game.
All three cities have built their venues as a vehicle for growth rather than nothing more than an affordable evening of family entertainment.
In Birmingham, the city drew Barons to suburban Hoover city center and also saw new developments spurred in part by the new stadium in the Parkside district. Venue at Ballpark, a luxury apartment complex adjacent to the stadium, opened in 2016 – a year after the Negro Southern League Museum. The nearby Powell Avenue Steam Plant is being redeveloped as a mixed-use facility and the park is adjacent to the Birmingham Railway Park which opened in 2010.
“One of the most satisfying things about working in Regions Field is that every year when people come here, they see a dramatic change in the overall landscape of Parkside’s environment,” said Jonathan Nelson, president and Managing Director of the Barons of Birmingham.
In Montgomery, the Riverwalk Stadium was the first step towards what has been a spectacular revitalization of the downtown district of the state capital – an attraction that has drawn people to an almost forgotten area of the city. It includes The Alley, an entertainment district with restaurants, bars, and an events center across from the stadium, as well as the Riverfront Park development overlooking the Alabama River. Since 2014, the city of Montgomery has said there has been more than $ 244 million under construction in the downtown area.
“I can confirm that this place exists for the purpose of creating downtown economic development,” said Brendon Porter, COO of Montgomery Biscuits. “That was 100% the driving force behind the decision to do it in terms of what it was before and how it has changed again.”
And in Madison, Toyota Field is touted as an anchor for the sprawling Town Madison development – a mixed-use project with over one million square feet of hotels, restaurants, and shops as well as 700,000 square feet. office space. Within its 563 acres are single-family homes as well as condos with plans for an extensive youth league sports facility designed for year-round use. Duluth Trading Company in 2019 was one of the first development companies to open and announcements were made for a Marriott hotel as well as an Outback Steakhouse.
“Talk to places like Fort Wayne, Indiana and Columbia, South Carolina, people who have these same types of facilities, and listen to them talk about what he has done for their citizens and, importantly, economics of building the town of Madison, I think we had the foresight to know it was going to be successful, ”Madison Mayor Paul Finley said. “And now, once we get through this pandemic, I think it’s going to prove it even more.”
According to a 2019 study by Marquette University, the construction of state-funded facilities is in line with the peers of Alabama minor league teams. In the old Southern League – essentially disbanded with Major League Baseball taking control this year of its affiliated farm teams – only two of the nine teams had stadiums built solely with public funds. A tenth team in the league, the Tennessee Smokies, is working for a $ 65 million city-owned stadium in downtown Knoxville with the goal of opening next season.
Birmingham’s Regions Field, which opened in 2013, is the most expensive of the state’s minor league stadiums with a price tag of $ 64 million. It has paid off in multiple ways – from the league-leading Barons every year since it opened to a host of economic development projects springing from the ground near the stadium.
Montgomery invested $ 26 million to transform a historic train depot in 2004 into a stadium, which now includes meeting rooms with names like Locomotive Loft and Boxcar Buffet.
The Trash Pandas found a new home moving from Mobile when Madison City Council agreed to fund a $ 46 million stadium that also serves as an event center that was lacking in the state’s 10th largest city. For example, when Finley last gave his State of the City address in the winter of 2020, he had to travel to nearby Huntsville for a location. He noted, however, that the next address would be Toyota Field – although the pandemic has so far postponed that speech.
Throughout the process, there was the pressure of making deals and then revising the deals. When the Trash Pandas approached city council with the idea of using “Rocket City” as their identifier rather than the agreed upon “Madison”, the team had to agree to pay more in utilities at Toyota Field as a dealership.
The pandemic, of course, has taken a toll on finances even as all three teams express optimism about the season ahead.
“We’re a small business,” Nelson said of the Barons. “And so, it hurt us, like any other small business.”
Of the cookies, Porter said, “It doesn’t take a great understanding of our business model to suddenly realize that you’re used to having 70 home baseball games and you’re going to zero. This will have a significant financial impact. “
In Madison, Pandas Trash are required, under its lease, to reimburse the city at least $ 1 million each year for the use of Toyota Field. The team aims to make this payment despite the lack of matches last season based on money generated from other events in the stadium such as children’s day camps, movie nights and private events such only weddings. The team also held a fair in its parking lot outside the stadium last August, followed by another fair in April.
In total, the Trash Pandas hosted around 175 events after taking possession of Toyota Field in February 2020.
“We did a lot of events that we probably wouldn’t normally have done,” said Garrett Fahrmann, executive vice president and general manager of Trash Pandas. “We probably wouldn’t have had this fair last summer. It was 10 days in a row when we normally have the season. And we’ve done it twice now. Movie nights, maybe we did. We organized neighborhood parties and all these different events that kept us afloat. We didn’t get rich doing it, but it kept us plugged in. “
The biggest event was a drive-through Christmas light show in the stadium parking lot – which was quickly terminated by the city to host the lucrative event – which drew around 25,000 cars. There were also socially distant tours with Santa Claus and hot chocolate inside Toyota Field, and foot traffic was strategically routed through the team’s merchandise store at the stadium.
This is a benefit of Toyota Field over the Field and Riverwalk Stadium areas – access to ample onsite parking.
Nelson and Porter said their sites remained busy during the pandemic with a variety of small events. But these events did not replace 70 nights of baseball.
“I think the biggest crowd ever (at any of these events) wouldn’t even have come close to a Monday night at a Barons game,” Nelson said.
For Madison, however, it goes beyond actual dollars into a more difficult to assess community impact. It also raises the profile of a booming city next to Huntsville – soon to become the largest city in the state.
“You can’t put a financial number on that,” Finley said of the civic pride associated with a minor league baseball team and a new venue for events. “When you make decisions, when you are mayor and council, you are always looking for the best financial interests of your citizens. And we want to see a full season which, in turn, gives us the full revenue structure that we envisioned, but we’re also very happy with all the pride that comes with it. “
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