Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Do the comparatives clearly indicate what kind of ballpark $40 million would build?

We have nothing but pipe dreams and promises of cash so far on Mayor Karl Dean's idyllic project for a Sulphur Dell ballpark. The journalists worth their salt have started asking questions about ballpark costs and risk along with the query of what exactly we are going to get for the money laid down for Sulphur Dell (the sequel).

Take J.R. Lind. He's looked around at other minor league ballparks that fall within or not far outside the Mayor's projected $40 million cap. Other recently-built Triple-A stadiums would blow Karl Dean's budget save for Werner Park (home to the Pacific Coast League's Omaha Storm Chasers). According to Lind, Werner Park was built for $36 million. If you exclude a grass berm in the Omaha outfield, conventional or permanent seats at Werner Park come nowhere close to Greer Stadium's 10,000 capacity.

Little sprawl on the prairie
However a closer look at more of the details about Werner Park cause me to wonder whether it is a good financial comparison with a Sulphur Dell project. The Omaha stadium is not urban. It looks like it sits on the prairie. In fact, the Storm Chasers left their old city ballpark to move 15 miles outside of Omaha. Werner Park looks like it took its cue from the Major League's Ballpark in Arlington: an attractive stadium built in the middle of a large empty plain to spur more suburban sprawl away from cities. Since there is no city around each of those developments, builders have other developments to urbanize those ballparks. In the case of Werner Park, the plans include mixed-use "Pennant Place". The short-term benefit for Werner Park is that developers realize a project that's cheaper than one they would build in city neighborhoods where prices are higher.

But that is precisely where cracks in comparisons between Werner Park and Dean's Sulphur Dell emerge. A new Sounds ballpark in the North Capitol area is going to be more expensive to build. This is no slam on Lind's points about the ballpark budget, but $40 million would not nearly buy near Downtown Nashville what it would buy in suburban Omaha.

Werner Park is also surrounded by the standard sea-of-asphalt surface parking, a relatively cheap way to store privately-owned vehicles. Reportedly, no mass transit runs between Omaha and the ballpark, so fans have to drive themselves. Mayor Dean is proposing a parking garage, which he hopes the state will build. If the state does build it we would not have to consider the fact of its greater relative expense (Nashville has very stubborn, rocky soil, by the way). But the transit question may show a parallel: Mayor Dean has expressed no transit plan beyond a parking garage to move people to and from Sulphur Dell. All of his mass transit eggs are in the East-West Bus Rapid Transit Connector, which will not serve points north and south.

Just as people drive to and park at Werner Park, so they would drive to and park at Sulphur Dell. That is not a problem on the prairie. It is a huge problem for high-density urban neighborhoods.

Above all, Mayor Dean cannot just slap something down on an empty canvas like one would on the prairie. He should consider the character of Downtown neighborhoods, Bicentennial Mall, Jefferson Street, the Cumberland River banks and every neighborhood between Sulphur Dell and MetroCenter.

But let us assume for a second that we could build a Sulphur Dell inspired by a similarly priced ballpark like Werner Park. Guess what? The Omaha development does not seem to be making the huge economic impact promised by developers and county politicians, who "tapped tax revenues" to fund the ballpark as a "stimulus package". The prairie is not giving way to retail, office space, restaurants, residential, or entertainment as promised when Werner Park was a concept, despite the fact that over $800,000 in municipal funds were spent to run water and sewer lines in.

This begs the question of how much Metro might have to pay to upgrade its ancient North Nashville water/sewer lines for a new Sulphur Dell development. And it is clear from the Werner Park experiment that idyllic dreams of a new field do not necessarily translate to benefits that ripple out in new development and growth.

But there remains the nagging reality that to find a Triple-A ballpark construction budget comparable to what Karl Dean wants to build at Sulphur Dell, we had to look to cheaper suburbia. I fail to see how $40 million will pay for anything close to it here.

UPDATE: Nashville Business Journal dreams the possibilities based on a slideshow of "other cities' ballparks", including the Major League ballpark in Baltimore, which cost $110 million to build 21 years ago. More like impossible dreams?

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