|Union Avenue outside AutoZone Park with FedExForum in background.|
Photo credit: Google Maps.
After some time we are finally getting a balanced report in print on long unfolding planning for a new ballpark. On Sunday night the Nashville City Paper published a well-rounded analysis of the various views in play on this issue rather than simply repeating Mayor's Office talking points or letting pro-developer Friends of Sulphur Dell dominate the discussion.
What I want to focus on for the moment is the article's reference to Memphis's AutoZone Park, a reference often used by various ballpark development supporters to predict economic growth for our prospects. As reporter Joey Garrison points out, the communities around Sulphur Dell are thriving compared to other proposed Nashville sites. The Union Avenue stretch of Memphis where AutoZone Park was built was considered rough, rundown, ramshackle, downtrodden, and unsafe. These are hardly adjectives that could be used to describe either Sulphur Dell or the neighborhood closest to the proposed site and most affluent in the "urban core", Germantown.
Yet, the council's primary cheerleader for a Sulphur Dell project, Jerry Maynard, insists that our area provides the "biggest bang for the buck". CM Maynard has also raised hopes with wishful thinking, if not sheer speculation, that retail and residential developments would mushroom across the area with a new stadium.
Yet, the results in Memphis, where the stakes were even higher, were not as explosive as originally predicted:
Catalyst, game-changer, kick-starter, transformer — I've seen all these words tossed around, and used them myself, to describe big deals in Memphis over the last 30 years. Cost aside, and this one didn't come cheap, what makes a deal transformative? I would say longevity, positive impact beyond the footprint of the project itself, continuous upside, and love, as in "I love taking people to so-and-so."
Here's how I would rate the T-factor of high-profile projects I've seen come to be since 1980 ....
AutoZone Park. Turned a sleazy, blighted part of downtown across from The Peabody into a showcase. Bigger than a ballpark, with offices, a parking garage, elementary school, and apartments. Attendance declined after the newness wore off, and the other side of Union Avenue hasn't come around.
I took a trek down Union Avenue via Google Maps and I saw a lot of properties that did not look like they were growing, that in some cases actually looked more demolished than built, that looked more like what I've seen around South Nashville near Greer Stadium. But the Union Avenue area is also supposed to have an ace up its sleeve: 3 blocks on its other side sits a major league sports arena: FedExForum, home of the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies. Even though sandwiched between minor league baseball and major league basketball, Union Avenue appears to languish after 7 years (AutoZone has been there for 10). There are also indications that the economic impact numbers that are used to promote FedExForum are artificially inflated by counting the multi-million dollar pro basketball players' payroll, even if those players do not spend their paychecks in or around the Union Avenue community.
Sulphur Dell has no major league venue, and we can assume that if AutoZone Park could not spur dramatic growth for the other side of Union with the help of a pro basketball arena, then we should not expect to see the same level of growth that Memphis has enjoyed (even though it materialized smaller than advertised). While on the subject of professional venues, I'll also point out that East Bank retail and residential growth has not run riot in the 12 years since Nashville's pro football stadium was built.
Birmingham, Alabama is exploring moving their minor league park downtown, too and the current scenario looks like it will be a boon to their Double A team while returns on the city's investment look more modest:
The city's costs include nearly $60 million to build the stadium and an accompanying Negro League museum and more than $600,000 to buy out the team's [current] lease ....
The revenue from the stadium itself won't begin to pay those costs, and it's not expected to, leaders said.
The Barons could gross $3.7 million a year from a contract that gives the team control of concessions and most of the ticket revenue and suite revenue ....
The city stands to earn about $315,000 annually from the revenue-sharing agreement with the team, according to Klein's estimates. The city also will receive $400,000 a year in rent.
Chuck Faush, [Mayor's] chief of staff, said risks have to be taken to reap long-term benefits.
"With the same guarantee that Birmingham and Jefferson County had to get together and build the [Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex], that's the same guarantee that we have for this stadium," Faush said.
The stadium development will be funded largely by a 3.5 percentage-point increase in the city's lodging tax, which is expected to generate about $3.4 million in 2012 ....
Howard Wial, a fellow for the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, said such facilities are a great source of civic pride but are not economic tools.
"I don't see much reason to subsidize a private company where there's no spillover benefit," he said. "If people want to have a team that they can go see and really want to see it in Birmingham ... maybe it's worth something to them. But it's not a very good economic development tool."
Wial, who directs Brookings' Metropolitan Economy Initiative and conducts research on urban and regional issues, cites Camden Yards in Baltimore as a warning. That city and state poured millions into the facility, which was touted as a way to revive the surrounding area when it opened in 1992. That resurgence hasn't occurred, and the city is still paying for its state-of-the-art stadium, Wial said.
Besides the rather small returns on the Birmingham concept, what North Nashvillians should take note of is that even Baltimore's iconic yard has failed to deliver the growth after nearly 20 years of operation. What other Nashvillians should notice is that Baltimore is still paying for unrealized Field-of-Dreams promises.