White Elephant on Ajo

As TEP enters perhaps its final year of spring training, community members look back at its checkered history

After abandoning Tucson on March 31, spring training baseball will leave behind 64 years of fond memories.

It will also leave behind about $25 million in debt.

Spring training began in Tucson at what eventually became Hi Corbett Field. In the first game, on a March afternoon in 1947, the Cleveland Indians defeated the New York Giants.

The springtime tradition will end at the same place on a 2010 afternoon when the Colorado Rockies play the Arizona Diamondbacks.

"It's more than a loss of just baseball," laments Steve Thrush. "It's the loss of another attraction which was integral to Tucson's economic base."

As a member of the Southern Arizona Sports Development Corporation in 1996, Thrush was one of many people who pushed the Pima County Board of Supervisors to construct a second ballpark in town to accommodate the Diamondbacks and Chicago White Sox. That project, supporters predicted, would ensure that spring training remained in town for many years to come.

The new $38 million facility became Tucson Electric Park (TEP) and was financed by bonds that have annual payments of about $3 million running through 2018.

Even though the White Sox are already gone, and the Diamondbacks are departing, Thrush thinks construction of the stadium on Ajo Way was worth the investment.

"From an economic standpoint, its impact was far greater that what's left on the debt service," he says.

On the other hand, governmental watchdog Mary Schuh questioned the financing for the stadium in 1996 and continues to be shocked by it today.

"The debt problem is the elephant in the living room that nobody wants to talk about," Schuh says. "Spring training there had a very short lifespan, but the debt service lives on."

A car-rental tax, a tax on RV spaces, a hotel/lodging tax and revenues from the ballpark are supposed to fund the annual stadium operating expenses of several million dollars. The original idea was that the facility would be "revenue neutral," with income covering all costs. However, that didn't prove to be the case, and the county's general fund has had to contribute.

More recently, the economic recession and loss of the White Sox has negatively affected revenues. Departure of the Diamondbacks means there will continue to be decreased income in the future.

Schuh points out that the loss of spring training will also result in fewer tourists who rent cars and stay in town. That will translate into an even lower stadium revenue stream.

"Where will the revenue come from?" Schuh wonders about the money needed to pay the ballpark's debt service.

Pima County's stadium district director, Chris Bartos, understands those economic concerns. In his budget for the next fiscal year, he's reducing both revenues and expenditures.

Bartos is hoping for some new revenue from possibilities including college baseball tournaments, Japanese professional teams holding spring training in Tucson, and an international player-development program during the summer.

Thrush suggests also using Tucson Electric Park for other events to raise needed revenue. Bartos agrees, but indicates there are hurdles.

The stadium concessionaire, he says, has a contract running through 2012, and that presents problems.

"The concessionaire has an impact on our ability to hold events," Bartos says. "We have to go through them, and it really hurts us with promoters."

Schuh says she's infuriated by such county contracts that didn't account for the possibility of teams leaving.

"Back in 1996," she recalls, "nobody asked: 'What if the glory days stop?' They thought it would go on forever. Whoever wrote those contracts should be put in stocks in a public square. They didn't protect the taxpayers and left gaps to let the teams thumb their noses at us.

"The elected officials need to be included," Schuh adds. "It happens over and over again that the public is left holding the (financial) bag."

Phil Gutt, who represented the Southern Arizona Innkeepers Association back in 1996 but now speaks only for himself, says he was concerned that TEP would not be adequately supported by its revenues.

"I didn't think it would make it," Gutt says of the financing, "but the supervisors had their minds made up.

"It's sad to see them leaving," Gutt adds about the spring training teams, "but it's not surprising. Baseball ownership holds venues hostage (for financial benefits) until they can extort a better deal from someone else."

While Hi Corbett Field will continue to have baseball on summer nights thanks to the independent minor league Tucson Toros team, TEP could largely become a mostly empty shell, especially after the departure of the Triple-A Tucson Sidewinders team after the 2008 season. Former Tucson Citizen sportswriter Corky Simpson is distressed by that potential future.

Simpson says he was at first opposed to TEP because he thought its location was the result of strong-arm political tactics by former county supervisors Dan Eckstrom and Raúl Grijalva. "There's no doubt in my mind it should have been built downtown," Simpson says of the ballpark.

But by the time TEP opened in February 1998, with a 6-5 Diamondbacks victory over the White Sox, Simpson had changed his mind. In a column, he called the new facility "a beautiful green jewel."

"I hoped it would be a big success," Simpson remarks. But he thinks the eventual outcome has been a disaster, due to sub-par maintenance and poor summertime field conditions.

"It really is a white elephant," Simpson says about Tucson Electric Park. "It's just a shame."


The Arizona Diamondbacks are leaving Tucson Electric Park and the $25 million left in debt service on it behind when they move to Phoenix for Spring Training in 2011.
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