B y D a v e D e v i n e
WILL SPRING TRAINING baseball strike out in Tucson? Will the national disgust with the game, reflected in lower attendance and fan animosity toward both the players and the owners, doom a proposal to have three teams training in Tucson in a few years?
Dan Schneider, president of the Southern Arizona Sports Development Corporation, says he hopes not. His group has proposed city government pay $2.4 million dollars for improvements to Hi Corbett field while also taking over $4.6 million in county debt incurred a few years ago when the Colorado Rockies decided to train in Tucson. In addition, the corporation has proposed relocating existing Parks and Recreation Department maintenance buildings to allow for the expansion of parking--at an estimated cost of $2 million.
At the same time, the corporation is proposing Pima County build a new $25-million stadium at the junction of I-10 and I-19 on land to be donated by the city. This would allow two teams, the new Arizona Diamondbacks and either the Chicago White Sox, the Kansas City Royals or the Houston Astros to train there.
Schneider said he believes the economic benefits and impact of the project, not the current image of baseball, should be the issues discussed. He hopes the community doesn't take a "head-in-the-sand" approach to the proposal and lose a wonderful opportunity.
What could taxpayers gain by gambling that tax receipts will go up more than enough to pay the debt service needed to finance the proposed changes at Hi Corbett? The corporation's report on the project suggests a hefty profit. The Rockies would also pledge to stay in town for a long time. Finally, the facilities at the existing stadium would be upgraded and expanded even more.
But there are some other factors which should be considered before a decision is made on this proposal. First, is it the local government's business to be acting as a bank? If it does, will the city council consider loan proposals from other types of businesses? Will a mom-and-pop operation or a small manufacturer be able to ask the council for a loan to expand their business because local tax receipts will increase if their business expands?
A second point to consider is the reliability of the tax revenue generated from those attending spring training games. Even if you assume the figures from the corporation are correct--and they don't address the issue of where visitors stay when they come, either in the city or the county--the last few years have shown that spring training is not a proven commodity. This year's "replacement" fiasco was just the latest in a series of labor problems that have affected spring training attendance.
If there's another strike, a work stoppage, a player lockout or some other labor action, the anticipated tax receipts just won't be there. The city general fund would then have to make the payments for the improvements, thus shorting other essential city services.
A final point to consider is the other funding options available to pay for these improvements. Schneider confirmed that the Rockies would be willing to put up $340,000 a year, of the $900,000 or so needed for debt service, and that the corporation may be able to offer some other financial assistance. But when asked about the possibility of a surcharge on ticket sales or charging for parking at Hi Corbett to help offset the cost of the improvements, his reply was that's a decision for the Rockies to make.
The City Council recently voted to impose a surcharge on the sale of tickets at the Tucson Convention Center to help offset operating costs. They could also do this at Hi Corbett Field. By doing so, they would reduce the investment risk to the taxpayers by increasing the amount the users of the improved facility are paying.
When asked about the corporation's proposal, Republican candidate for mayor Sharon Collins said, "The City of Tucson shouldn't be in the baseball business." She added the proposal couldn't earn enough to pay back the cost of the debt service for the improvements. "Go Wildcats," she quipped.
Ed Kahn, Libertarian candidate for mayor, agreed, if more bluntly. "Government, specifically the city government, shouldn't be spending taxpayer money to help rich baseball people. This is private enterprise, so let them spend their own money," Kahn said.
Democratic mayoral candidate Bruce Wheeler played phone tag with The Weekly, and the other Democratic candidate, George Miller, did not return our calls.
Should the Tucson City Council invest taxpayer money on the assumption that tax receipts will increase to offset the costs? Would they even be considering this proposal if it weren't sports related? Are there better ways, such as through small business loans or summer jobs for kids, that the money could be invested?
Will the council call a strikeout on this proposal? The issue is tentatively scheduled for a vote next month.
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