There's been a lot of talk about bringing professional baseball to Champaign-Urbana lately. I've been calling around to other cities the past few days trying to find out more about how this minor league baseball plan works, and it seems like each city has its own approach.
I'll start with the Normal CornBelters, since they are the closest to us. Their first season was last summer at The Corn Crib, near the intersection of interstates 74, 55 and 39.
Jonathan Cole of Pendulum Studio, which designed the stadium, sent me the specifications and some photos: It has seating capacity for 7,500, parking for 1,200 vehicles and the stadium and parking lot sits on 22 acres. Other features include a removable pitcher's mound, which means the stadium can host non-baseball events, a drive-in movie screen and two classrooms.
Classrooms? Yes. The stadium was built in partnership with Heartland Community College, which owns the 22 acres on which the baseball field sits. The bricks and mortar are privately-owned, and when it was all said and done, the project cost $12 million.
Next we have the Lake Erie Crushers, which play in Avon, Ohio. According to census data, Avon had a population of 11,446 in 2000. It is located just off the shore of Lake Erie, and sits about 20 miles west of Cleveland. So in a nutshell, it's a town much different than Champaign.
The Crushers started playing in 2009 -- the city of Avon and Mayor Jim Smith took a completely different approach than Normal to attract a team. While the Normal stadium is privately-owned, the city of Avon built and owns their baseball stadium.
It cost the city $13 million -- the payment on the bonds it issued to pay for the project is $600,000 annually until the principal plus interest is paid off. It also cost Avon residents a 0.25 percent income tax increase, and the city set up a special taxing district to help encourage investment in a baseball team.
It seats 5,000, and the team pays $250,000 per year to rent the stadium for its games, so that helps with the city's payment.
The Traverse City Beach Bums play in Traverse City, Mich. This is the only of the three stadiums I've ever seen with my own eyes, but based on the pictures I've seen, I think it's the nicest. Not that that is at all relevant.
Anyway, this is a privately-owned team playing in a privately-owned stadium built on privately-owned land, which makes the financial data a little harder to come by, so I have few details on this one.
Jeremy Crum, the team's general manager, said the stadium seats 4,600, which includes 3,600 fixed seats and about 1,000 spread between private suites and the lawn.
It's a multi-use field, which it seems like many of these are, and according to the team's website, the stadium will host a wine and microbrewery festival a week from Friday. This is unfortunate for me, personally, because I'll be near Traverse City this weekend, not next weekend. But the Beach Bums are at home this weekend, so I'm hoping to catch a game. I'll let you know how that goes if I can make one.
The reason I bring all this up is because I want to point out that there are a lot of different approaches to this. In my discussion with him, Mayor Don Gerard seemed open-minded to a number of different approaches, and I imagine this is one of the things his exploratory committee will consider. That is, of course, assuming the committee decides that a market for baseball actually exists locally.
Gerard has also been feeding the local media claims that a minor league baseball team is an immediate money-maker that would have a significant economic impact. I'm not saying it's not possible, but that doesn't seem to be the case in Normal and Avon, Ohio.
I found it interesting that once I started asking about the economic impact, both the Avon mayor and the director of the Bloomington-Normal Convention and Visitors Bureau independently described minor league baseball more as a "quality of life" booster. Crystal Howard, the director of the BNCVB, said the Normal team had an economic impact of $300,000 in its first year. That seems like a minor dollar amount considering the Illinois High School Association wrestling state championships is estimated to bring in $5.1 million to Champaign County during the one weekend it's in town.
"It's going to be a great venue for the community," Howard said. "It's not going to bring in major, major people from outside the area to come in and stay all night."
Mayor Jim Smith said the Avon stadium helped boost property values in the immediate area.
"Before that, property would sit there and the For Sale signs would rot off," Smith said.
Now that property is selling -- but it was all vacant land, before. The difference is that Gerard is proposing the stadium be built in a developed neighborhood (although there are some nearby vacant or under-used properties).
Property values are rising in the area immediately surrounding the Avon ballpark, but Smith said it's a break-even situation for the city.
"We'll offset our costs," Smith said. "Baseball fields are not money makers per se for a city, but you need it for the economic development that occurs in its range. Quality of life means a lot."
The high school team uses the field, and last summer the stadium hosted and Alan Jackson concert.
That does not at all mean minor league stadiums are worthless -- both Howard and Smith agreed that the stadiums were great additions to their communities. But their focus was on quality of life, not economic development.
Of course, it's hard to imagine a brand new stadium and a new business bringing a negative economic impact, assuming it doesn't turn into "The Simpsons" monorail. If you're unfamiliar with the "Marge vs. the Monorail" episode, the cartoon covers a risk of new infrastructure. The fictional town of Springfield collectively decides to use new city revenue to build an unsafe rail line (which, it turns out, took down the fictional town of North Haverbrook), instead of fixing up Main Street. A jocund Phil Hartman leads the town in song and dance.
I couldn't pass up the chance to make that Simpsons reference, because Gerard told me this: "This isn't a monorail. This isn't a Simpsons episode."
Photos of "The Corn Crib" in Normal courtesy Jonathan Cole of Pendulum Studio.