Friday, October 16, 2015

The Differing Roles of Minor League Ballparks

I’m a skeptic on the question of how much economic activity a new sports venue creates.  I’m dubious about those who argue that publicly-funded venues are essential catalysts for the economic health of cities.  But at the same time, I also doubt those who argue that there is no economic development value in new sports venues and that new parks serve only to enrich the owners.

(Acknowledgment: Part of my skepticism on the latter point is the four years I spent as the part-owner of a minor league baseball club.  Our goal was to break even so we could continue providing entertainment to the community, a goal that we never achieved.  We even explored making ourselves into a non-profit, but learned that federal law didn’t allow it.

I’ll acknowledge that major league sports are very different that minor league baseball, but I suspect that virtually every owner is motivated at least a bit by doing something good for the community, with many willing to accept a lesser return in exchange.  That’s probably the reason that most clubs are owned by individuals, not corporations. )

Having often pondered the question of the economic impact of ballparks, I’ll argue that ballparks can generally be put into three categories:

Economic Catalyst: A park in a walkable part of the city that is ripe for renewed development, with the new park providing the impetus.  In the Bay Area, AT&T Park was an economic catalyst.

Walkable Amenity:  A park in a walkable part of the city that is already economically vital, with the park providing an amenity for the people already visiting there.  If the proposed Warrior’s arena in Mission Bay proceeds, I’d consider it a walkable amenity.

Drivable Amenity: A park that may meet the need of the sports team, but is surrounded by parking so it won’t trigger new growth and will be difficult to reach except by car.  I’ll offer both Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara and O.Co Stadium in Oakland as examples.

It was with those categories in mind that I turned a critical eye toward the minor league ballparks of the south during a recent trip.

To be clear, this analysis isn’t scholarly and likely has errors of fact.  With a pair of friends, the mission of our twelve-day outing was good conversation, fine local beers, and attentive watching of minor league baseball.  Our plans didn’t include spending part of our days at the local public libraries, investigating the reasons given before the ballparks were built.

But the urbanist part of my brain is never turned off and I could still make reasonable, and hopefully mostly correct, observations, even while watching a ballgame and enjoying a beer.

Birmingham: We began our trip in Birmingham, where Regions Field was the best example of an economic catalyst that we saw.  Located in a fading industrial district and built to mimic the steel mills that once defined Birmingham, Regions Field seems to be triggering growth, with new construction visible over the centerfield wall (photo above).

It was even more exciting to have live music being played and beverages being served in a derelict industrial site across from the park when the game ended.  The neighborhood felt on an upswing, with the ballpark a key component.

Montgomery: Riverwalk Stadium in Montgomery fell more into the walkable amenity category.  A well-configured park that occupies a former railyard and uses a historical rail side hotel as office space, Riverwalk is a fine facility.  But it adjoins a largely developed downtown, so won’t catalyze much future development.  I loved the park, but it’s not a driver of new growth.

Pensacola: This might have been our favorite ballpark of the trip.  Situated on the Gulf Coast waterfront, the setting is lovely, the park has architectural interest, and the ballgame experience was great.  But the park is adjoined by developed parcels and is set back from the adjoining street behind a large parking lot, so Pensacola managed to build to a drivable amenity only blocks from downtown.

Mobile: Henry Aaron Stadium might have been worst park we saw the entire trip.  An oddly configured and aging facility in a fully developed business park next to a freeway, its only function is as a mediocre drivable amenity.  We suggested that Hammerin’ Hank should sue to have his name removed, even if his childhood home is now incongruously tucked outside the first base stands.

Biloxi: This ballpark puzzled us.  The downtown seems to have gone all in on gambling as an economic driver.  But then one of the key downtown parcels was devoted to a family-oriented function.  It’s a nicely configured park, open only weeks when we visited, but most folks arrive by car.  Heck, there wasn’t even a good pedestrian route to the casino directly across the street.  It’s absolutely a drivable amenity in the heart of downtown.

To show the depth of the problem, we went looking for post-game nibbles.  The only walkable option was the casino which offered either the buffet or a snack bar with all its seats filled.  We ended up driving to a Waffle House.

New Orleans: The history of the minor league New Orleans Pelicans is long and storied.  But the ballclub is now known as the Zephyr and is housed miles from the French Quarter in an unexceptional ballpark in an adjoining town.  With a giant parking lot and the principle view from the first base stands being a Harley-Davidson dealership on the adjoining stroad, Zephyr Field is the quintessential drivable amenity.

Jackson, Mississippi: With a downtown in desperate need of a focal point, the Jackson ballpark in located in the parking lot of a giant shopping mall in the neighboring suburb which is convenient only to cars.  Drivable amenity. 

Memphis: AutoZone Park is a puzzle.  It’s a well-designed park with an old-time baseball feel on a key corner only three blocks away from Beal Street, the center of Memphis music scene.  In any other town, development would be booming, but not in Memphis.

The best indicator of a lackluster neighborhood economy is that we were able to find cut-rate rooms in a mediocre hotel near the rightfield bleachers and within walking distance of Beal Street.  We were happy with the convenience and the price, but in any other town the motel would have been razed and a chain hotel with twice the room rate would have been built.

One of my companions suggested that the white flight from downtown Memphis was so profound that downtown regeneration is particularly slow.  The hypothesis is reasonable.

AutoZone Park, which could also use a different naming sponsor, is an economic catalyst that has thus far fizzled.

Nashville: First Tennessee Park is another newly opened facility.  Located midday between downtown and Germantown neighborhood which intrigued me during an earlier trip, the ballpark will likely be an economic catalyst.  But it’s too early to judge the success.

Chattanooga: AT&T Field has a marvelous setting on a rocky outcrop adjoining downtown Chattanooga, a place that I loved and will cover in a later post.  But the ballpark is an aging facility that isn’t having much of an impact on the vibrant downtown.  It’s a walkable amenity but one that I hope is someday soon rebuilt on the same site because I won’t want it to go anywhere else.

The next time you come across a facile argument about the value, or absence of value, in a proposed sports venue, remember that not all sports venues are created equal and dig more deeply.

Next time, I’ll return to a recent topic of city-focused tourism.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (


  1. Great post, and good typology. Cedar Rapids's Veterans Memorial Stadium is similar to your description of Biloxi: Located about a mile from downtown, it's not impossible to walk or bike to, but not easy. Most people drive, and there's no nearby economic development. Only one broasted chicken place is remotely close to the ballpark.

    1. Bruce, good to hear from you. From your description, I'd guess your ballpark to be more like Mobile, a fair distance from any businesses that serve the general public. The Biloxi ballpark is right downtown, but a part of the town isn't very walkable and is configured more to serve gamblers than families.

      How's your Urban Chat group doing?