If you build it, they will come. In this case, we’re talking about the re-emergence of Palm Beach County in the spring training and Minor League Baseball scene.
Nineteen years ago, Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter was constructed. Located in the Abacoa community, the stadium holds nearly 7,000 fans and features luxury sky-box seating, two levels of permanent seating, parking and concessions.
For what seemed like the longest time, Roger Dean Stadium was the only game in town. As home to the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals Major League Baseball franchises for spring training, and four minor league teams (the rookie-level and Class A-Advanced affiliates of both Miami and St. Louis) as well, it was the single choice for baseball-loving fans within Palm Beach County.
But that changes this year, with the inaugural season at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches in West Palm Beach. Like Roger Dean Stadium, the new state-of-the-art complex is the spring training home to two MLB teams — the Houston Astros and the Washington Nationals. And in the future, minor league affiliates of those teams will also call the 6,500-seat stadium home.
The Astros and Nationals will play the first game at the new ballpark on Feb. 22. Roughly half of the $148 million complex cost is being paid by Palm Beach County, using taxes on hotel stays dedicated toward tourism-boosting efforts. The state and the two teams are paying the balance.
For now, that’s as far as in-county professional baseball will advance. An attempt to relocate the Atlanta Braves to Lake Worth’s John Prince Park was floated, but county personnel involved with the push struck out. The Braves will be moving to Sarasota starting in 2019. Atlanta trained in West Palm Beach from 1963 through 1997, when the team moved to Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex.
When it comes to building new stadiums, there are mixed views on whether they benefit the community in which they are constructed. The textbook study of the relation between professional sports and economic development was written by Robert Baade of the Heartland Institute. Even though the study was completed in the 1990s, it is still widely cited as an authoritative reference. The Heartland Study identifies three economic impacts from public subsidies of professional sports: direct expenditures (restaurants, hotels, transportation, souvenirs, food), indirect expenditures (income spent by those who attend games on other goods and services within the metropolitan area), and “psychological” benefits (which are less easily quantified; some have suggested television coverage of an area’s professional sports teams encourages businesses to locate there).
There are also intangibles, such as the benefits of civic pride that successful sports franchises evoke in a community. But there can also be negatives with construction of new sports complexes. There are times where the deals struck between professional owners and community leaders are so lopsided that the community suffers long-term. For example, the horrible deal between Miami-Dade County officials and Miami Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria. According to reports, Miami-Dade officials “were so incompetent in negotiating the project that they stuck taxpayers with interest rates that would have made a mid-housing-bubble speculator gasp.” By the time the bonds are paid off in 40 years, the $515 million Marlins Park cost will have ballooned into $2.4 billion — all while the team pays no taxes on the land. It was a deal that put low-income taxpayers on the hook, at the same time county services were threatened with cuts. Miami’s then-Mayor Carlos Alvarez had just pushed through a budget that raised property taxes, while at the same time called for a five percent across-the-board cut in pay for most county workers but a 15 percent increase in the salaries of his own staff.
The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches project, of course, is nowhere near the cost of the Marlins complex, nor is it being built in the throes of a recession. Furthermore, built on the site of an old city dumping ground, it holds the prospect of rejuvenating a neighborhood in need of a helping hand. Let’s hope our local options continue to be more fiscally sound than our southern counterpart and the new ballpark lives up to its promise.