A few weeks ago, I wrote about a ballpark proposal in High Point. Today, I saw a Fayetteville Observer headline: Fayetteville, Cumberland officials to visit Columbia, S.C. to tour baseball stadium. Oh, no. I knew where this was going.
And I was right. The city has met with the Houston Astros about bringing a minor league team to Fayetteville, so these officials are headed down to Columbia to see the Single A ballpark there. They have a consultant working on a feasibility report for building a stadium and an economic impact assessment.
I’ll go ahead and predict that the consultants will assure the city of an enormous economic impact. They always do, and it’s total bunk. But let’s set that particular issue aside for a moment and consider a more fundamental set of questions. Should the city and county be financing a ballpark at all? Are there other ways to do it? Because ballparks are always publicly financed, aren’t they?
The answers, in short, are no, yes, and almost. Let’s take them in reverse order. It is indeed true that ballparks are almost always publically financed. This wasn’t always the case, but it has been since the 1950s. That said, there are a few notable exceptions, and those warrant some consideration.
AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants, opened in 2000 and was privately financed. It’s also consistently ranked as one of the best, if not THE best, ballpark in the whole of Major League Baseball. (Yes, I’m a Giants fan. Yes, my office is painted orange. But this is not my bias coming through. It’s a great ballpark.) The last Major League ballpark before AT&T to be privately financed was Dodger Stadium in LA. I find it slightly ironic that they’re both on the left coast, but it is what it is. It’s also the only thing I like about the Dodgers.
And it’s not just big league parks. The West Michigan Whitecaps, a Single A affiliate of the Detroit Tigers, play their home games at Fifth Third Ballpark, which was privately financed in 1994. The owners didn’t originally intend to build the ballpark with private money. They started out pursing tax dollars. But over time, as that didn’t pan out, they decided to explore the private route, and they’re glad they did. It turns out there are lots of benefits.
Which brings us back to Fayetteville. I love the idea of a minor league team in Cumberland County, but I’d challenge the city and county to take a look at the West Michigan Whitecaps. If they can do it, so can North Carolina entrepreneurs. The local government gets to avoid risk, taxpayers get to keep more of their money (which they can use for baseball tickets, among other things), and the team gets to own their own facility. Win-win-win.