Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Baseball, Bozos and sunsets

With tonight's (7 p.m.) forum at the Richmond Times-Dispatch's downtown headquarters, baseball is on my mind. I'm thinking about how I first got drawn into the discussion of where to play professional baseball in Richmond.

When the Richmond Baseball Initiative push for building a baseball stadium started complicating the $18.5 million plan to refurbish The Diamond, which is owned by the Richmond Metropolitan Authority, I didn't like the way some of the talk went; especially R-Braves general manager Bruce Baldwin's finger-pointing at the RMA's general manager Mike Berry.

It all seems like a long time ago, now.

The RMA's deal fell apart when the counties bolted. Then the Atlanta Braves and the Richmond Braves were sold from Time Warner to Liberty Media and the controversial notion for a new stadium in Shockoe Bottom faded away, as the numbers didn't seem to add up.

Then Mayor Doug Wilder staged his Friday Night Fiasco; a few days later the Braves management and Gwinnett County began their talks about putting what were then the R-Braves in stadium to be built in the suburbs of Atlanta. Three months later the news broke that 2008 would be the last season for the R-Braves to play their home games on the Boulevard.

Days before the end of Wilder's term as mayor, the Shockoe Bottom baseball stadium concept reappeared, like magic! It seemed the squirrelly Wilder had changed his mind, again.

Bryan Bostic (previously with RBI) announced that he and his partners would buy a minor league team to play in a stadium that developer Highwoods Properties would build. This time, we were assured the numbers would add up.

Of course, there's much more to this story and I'm still not so sure about the numbers. Over the years, my original objections to a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom have been bolstered and I've formed some new objections, as I've been drawn deeper into the story.

The only objection I will reiterate now is the original one: The backers and boosters for this baseball stadium scheme seem to believe that baseball in Shockoe Bottom will be successful even if some good part of what were the R-Braves fans don't come to the new team's games. Baseball fans don't matter to them.

Well, I'm convinced they are wrong. I think they are so concerned about real estate, they have taken their eyes off the ball.

They seem to believe that if you stuff enough distractions into the picture people are going to pay to see a baseball game, but they won't care about watching the game. Put a miniature golf course in the ballpark. Put in a Ferris wheel and a waterslide, etc. They're going to attract so many loyal fans of activities like Dunk-the-Bozo and bumper cars that it won't matter how many true baseball fans show up.

In other words, baseball will just be a backdrop. The game itself will be used like mood music in the background.

Of minor league baseball, Bostic has said, "It's not about wins and losses, it's about the experience ... it's not about the game, it's about sunsets."

Maybe he's right.

Maybe so much has changed that baseball fans don't care about baseball, anymore. I expect to hear that point made tonight at the forum. We'll see if I'm the only guy left in town who still thinks it matters what baseball fans who DO WATCH the game itself want in the way of a baseball park.

*

Update: At the Public Square forum at least two-thirds of the speakers were clearly not in favor of the Shockoe Bottom baseball proposal. The audience broke the same way. The Highwoods Properties VP, Paul Kreckman, complained that they were "ill-informed" to disagree with him.

20 comments:

creativeclass said...

Despite Kreckman's protests about "misinformed" attendees, the speakers from the audience were clearly well-informed about the Shockoe Center plan details, judging from the caliber of the comments. These comments ranged from economics to politics to community impact to baseball itself.

As Charlie Diradour, one of the panelists said, "There ain't no free lunch." Richmonders have learned that hard lesson from past experience. We are willing to give every proposal a fair hearing, but I have to say that Kreckman and Bostic must have been surprised at the sustained barrage of well-argued criticism and observations from the audience.

Anonymous said...

And 90% of the attendees were over the age of 50.

And yes, Kreckman is right, many WERE ill-informed. They don't understand that the economic development is guaranteed to happen w/ the ballpark -- if it doesn't, the ballpark does not get built.

Stuart said...

I was part of the 10% in attendance under the age of 50. I am not misinformed about this project, in fact I've been following it closely. It makes me mad when I'm told the developers know best and it would be in my interest to just hand over the land and money.

If you want to see the economic guarantees of baseball stadiums, go poke around the neighborhood surrounding Nationals Park in DC. It's a ghost town despite the millions DC taxpayers shelled out to developers and their guarantees.

creativeclass said...

Or check out the new AAA Braves stadium in Gwinnett County, Georgia. Waaay over budget, and situated out in the 'burbs - we were told these minor-league stadiums needed to be built near downtowns?!

Anonymous said...

Of course, neither the Gwinnett Stadium nor the Nationals park were financed the same as this development will be financed. The City isn't on the hook for the bonds, and is being asked to contribute only $8 million for infrastructure improvements in the Bottom (roads/sewers/etc).

But hey, keep making those bad analogies if you want.

Anonymous said...

Kreckman didn't say if you disagree you are ill-informed. He said he was suprised by the number of people who commented who are misinformed about some of the fundamentals of the project.

The fact is a number of speakers last night were, in fact, really ill-informed. One lady said she opposed the development in part because it was going to tear down the Farmer's Market. Obviously she had not even bothered to look at the plan. Others still don't understand the financing and how it differs from prior Richmond projects.

creativeclass said...

What does the location of the Gwinnett Braves stadium have to do with financing?!

I must have missed the lady who was worried about Farmers Market. Most audience members, pro and con, really did their homework before standing up to speak. The speakers, as well as the general audience, were about 2-1 against the Shockoe Center proposal.

And tell me, who will pay for city infrastructure improvements once the $8 million figure is breached? The latest estimates are $15 to $25 million.

F.T. Rea said...

Anonymous,

Kreckman and Bostic both grew impatient with the parade of attendees at the forum who spoke in opposition to their plans. They didn't handle it well.

They came off as blaming what was their own poor salesmanship on the people in attendance who didn't buy what they were selling.

Anonymous said...

I thought they handled it pretty well considering they are being accused by some in attendance of trying to get rich off of the taxpayers, and, in Bostic's case, even being blamed for the RBraves leaving in the first place!

Kind of tough to sit there and take it for 20 minutes without a chance to respond to every speaker.

As for whether or not they are good "pitch men", I will agree with you that they aren't great...epecially Bostic. Sure, the burden is on them to sell the project. But that doesn't excuse the intellectual laziness of some who oppose the project but clearly don't know even the most basic facts.

creativeclass said...

"But that doesn't excuse the intellectual laziness of some who oppose the project but clearly don't know even the most basic facts."

The "facts" (by this, I presume you mean the information previously provided by Highwoods and widely disseminated) were rigorously challenged on Tuesday night. Despite months of public and private presentations, Kreckman and Bostic are still not able to put the many questions about the proposal to rest - in particular, the contention that the city taxpayers will not pay more than $8 million for the ballpark and surrounding office, retail and residential space.

Anonymous said...

creative class, something tells me nothing they could ever say or do would "put it to rest" in your mind.

F.T. Rea said...

One of the things Bostic said on Tuesday night struck me as particularly odd: He made mention of the $18.5 million renovation plan to renovate The Diamond that was in place until the counties withdrew in the face of RBI's push to build in The Bottom.

Then Bostic mocked the figure by claiming the number really would have turned out to have been $30 million.

He did the same thing at the Hill School presentation.

Well, I can't fathom why a guy asking his listeners to believe his numbers are dependable, projections and so forth, and then bring up the thorny subject of how developers sometimes play games with the dollar figures, in order to get approval. Then the figures sometimes turn out to be quite different than had been stated when the plan was being sold.

That seems to me to be a bad subject. But Bostic seems to be so anxious to leap at every chance to throw dead cats at The Diamond, the RMA, etc., that he can't help himself.

Like, bringing up the way $18.5 million could have mutated into $30 million sure does open the door to thinking about how $60 million for the stadium might become $70 million. And, how $8 million for infrastructure might become $15 million, or more, etc.

Paul said...

While it may be an odd move, it is safe to assume quoted numbers will change. Lowball amounts quoted for Diamond renovation are commonly used. Before they left, the Braves were willing to pay 1/3 of the cost for a fully renovated Boulevard locations and Hizzoner walked away.

You primary objection, though, of ignoring the existing fan base has flaws. The existing fan base was dwindling and we cannot rely on this aging group for the future. The diehards will continue to come. It is the new generation of families, not hipsters, that will be the new future for baseball. Those and an older generation who remember a Richmond of their youth will be the primary market. These folks have already shown a readiness to come downtown. You can see them in their thousands at the Folk Festival, Easter on Parade, Theatre IV and a dozen other events. Given a reason and a destination and they will come.

F.T. Rea said...

Paul,

Odd move? Are you saying deliberately ginned up number are OK?

Hizzoner (Wilder) didn't walk away. First the counties walked. Then the mayor diddled until the Braves left.

A baseball team will play 72 games at home. Comparing a baseball season to Easter on Parade, or any other special event with free admission makes no sense.

A baseball season runs from April to September. Using numbers made up out of thin air, Bostic has been claiming he will draw more paying customers every night than the R-Braves ever did.

There were several reasons the R-Braves' attendance figures dropped after the 1990s. Just one of them was all the ill will their general Manager Bruce Baldwin generated.

By the way, if you're going to talk about baseball, it might help to know something about the game itself and its fans. The audience for a baseball game is not so much like a Theatre IV audience.

If you want to imagine a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom, because it suits you, that's fine. However, if you want to justify building it based on imaginary reasons that won't work.

creativeclass said...

"creative class, something tells me nothing they could ever say or do would "put it to rest" in your mind."

If you would respond to my question (5/15, 7:29 AM) instead of dodging it, that would help a great deal.

Paul said...

I've been a fan of baseball for 40 plus years, which gives me some understanding of both baseball and fans. I do have an idea of what will work and what won't. Baseball is not supported by "fans" alone. It is supported by people looking for cheap family entertainment that go to four or five times a year. It's supported by people looking for something to do on a Saturday or a Tuesday. Some of them come for baseball, some of them come for the beer and comraderie of their friends.

I support baseball in Shockoe Bottom because it suits Richmond. You for one should know the power of imagination.

Anonymous said...

CC, where is the question I supposedly dodged? There's no question in your 7:29 a.m. post.

creativeclass said...

"CC, where is the question I supposedly dodged? There's no question in your 7:29 a.m. post."

From the post (I typed it s.l.o.w.l.y so you will comprehend...) ..."Kreckman and Bostic are still not able to put the many questions about the proposal to rest - in particular, the contention that the city taxpayers will not pay more than $8 million for the ballpark and surrounding office, retail and residential space."
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creativeclass said...

I guess I've got my answer now. According to the executive summary of the just-released Davenport report, the project would require city-backed bonds. So we are on the hook, after all.
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creativeclass said...

RTD's Williams: Forget financing worries, forget consensus, just build the damn thing!
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Word verification: snookered