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Local Minor League Teams a Hit

Monday, July 28, 2003 at 12:06 PM

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Cleveland planners were counting on sports to revitalize downtown. They convinced taxpayers to build Jacobs Field and Gund Arena. But in recent years, fickle fans have meant empty seats. The investment has been questioned by citizens who may be asked to pay for a new convention center which has similar economic goals. Meanwhile, disappointed business owners pray for the return of sell-out crowds and winning seasons. But things are different in other northeast Ohio cities. Apparently minor league sports is fulfilling a promise that has eluded Cleveland. ideastream's Mike West has more.

It’s time to play ball at Eastlake Stadium, the home of the Captains, the A-affiliate of the Cleveland Indians. The team averages over 5,500 fans per game and sellout crowds of over 7,200 on weekends. City leaders say the stadium has hit a home run in its opening season.

Dan Diliberto: Everything has been going good. The development part of this has come along very well because now we have six new restaurants that are moving into the area, three of them are under construction already. So all of that is happening the way we said it would.

Dan Diliberto is the mayor of Eastlake. He says a nearby Wal-Mart store is also expanding because of the stadium. Low-paying service positions may not sound like much, but Diliberto insists other industries will follow.

Dan Diliberto: What this has done is brought Eastlake to the forefront, that Eastlake is a great community and we have a lot of diversity and now with a stadium in here and we have a great industrial base, people are starting to notice it and starting to bring businesses here, that’s what we said was going to happen.

The $17 million stadium is being paid for with state, county, and federal money as wells as some commercial fees, but no city taxes. An ice skating rink is also being built for the off-season.

But can baseball prop-up economic development in the long run? To find out we went to Akron. Canal Park has been the home of the Aeros since 1997. Mark Williamson is the director of communications for the City of Akron. He says the Indians minor league team is responsible for millions in private and public investment that has poured into renovating downtown.

Mark Williamson: There is renewed enthusiasm downtown that I would argue probably not have had without baseball, baseball really it’s fun, it’s great for families and you’re bringing younger people into downtown who think it’s a pretty cool place now. And that hasn’t happened since the fifties.

The area near the stadium boasts several blocks of restaurants, bars, and a new park with an amphitheater. Refurbished buildings are now home to office workers at a mayor law firm, a company that makes hand cleaners and a large plastics business.

Arnie Elzey: So we built a ballpark and there was criticism right up to opening day. As soon as that park opened and we started breaking attendance records for minor league baseball, the criticism didn’t gradually go away - it stopped. In seven years I don’t think I’ve heard a bad word about Canal Park from anybody.

Nate Abraham: It’s a complete waste of my time.

Nate Abraham owns a delicatessen across the street from the ballpark. He says 47 homes games and about a half a million fans each year hasn’t been much help.

Nate Abraham: They instituted a new rule. None of the fans can bring in pop or food on their own you have to buy it from their concession. Which costs them like three dollars for a pop, and three dollars for a candy bar, and three dollars for this, and three dollars for that. So a guy like me, we don’t get any benefit from it.

Other merchants agree.

Bob Peacock: It isn’t turning out the way we expected, when we were presented the idea originally the ballpark was supposed to help all the retail down here and it really hasn’t helped us much at all.

Bob Peacock works at the Peanut Shop a block and a half from Canal Park.

Bob Peacock: It’s done parts of downtown a lot of good, when we thought it was going to do us a lot of good, and then when they came in they had that rule that you couldn’t take anything into the ballpark to eat or drink. So the only business we’ve gotten is what we’ve got people to smuggle into the ballpark.

Peacock says downtown development has also meant the 75-year-old business will soon be forced to move across the street, doubling the price of the shop’s lease. But despite the unhappiness of some small merchants, city leaders everywhere are sold on minor league stadiums. Martin Burgwinkle is a project executive for Turner Construction. His company built the Eastlake Stadium, one like it in Toledo, and Mansfield, Ohio could be next.

Martin Burgwinkle: Turner is getting involved in a lot of these kinds of projects all around the country now. It just seems like there’s more and more opportunities coming up there’s a lot of minor league teams that want to upgrade their facilities and build new.

Minor league fans say cheap tickets mean affordable family fun. They are also willing to come to games even when their teams are losing. That’s in contrast to Cleveland Indians fans. Businesses surrounding Jacobs Field and Gund Area have gone under, or struggled to survive when big league and NBA teams have losing records. In Cleveland, Mike West, 90.3.

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