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If You Build It, They Won’t Come

Of all the bad ideas Mayor Pedro Segarra has proposed, and this list is long, bringing minor league baseball to downtown Hartford sits at the top.

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The deal, the best I can tell from news reports, is that Hartford will sign a 25-year lease with the New Britain Rock Cats, beginning in 2016. The Rock Cats will play in a new 9,000 seat baseball stadium downtown, built by $60 million in taxpayer loot.

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It is shameful the only City Council members to talk to the Hartford Courant did so anonymously. And they claim Mayor Segarra has the five votes. That is unfortunate, as people have not done their homework.

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This is a terrible idea on so many levels: it represents inter-city competition, not cooperation; it represents corporate welfare and imprudent guarding of the public fisc; it is simply a bad investment, and it represents poor land use management.

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At the outset, I am a rabid baseball fan. I have been to 20 major league stadiums and countless minor league ones. I recently saw the Quintana Roo Tigres no-hit the Mexico City Red Devils in Cancun.

In 1998, I started Warning Track Cards, a minor league baseball card manufacturer, that I ran until 2004. I photographed, crafted and designed and sold baseball cards, yearbooks, posters and other printed materials to independent baseball teams across the United States, mainly in the Northeast.

In July 2000, while photographing the Northern League All Star game for the League, at Yogi Berra Stadium in Montclair State University in New Jersey, I ran into Mayor Mike Peters walking around the concourse. Mayor Mike wanted to bring a Northern League team here to Hartford.

The deal never happened. It seemed, maybe, liked a good idea to build a stadium somewhere near downtown (it may have even been parcel 12-B), and attract the University of Hartford and UConn to play some games there, too.

UHart’s baseball pedigree includes almost Hall-of-Famer Jeff Bagwell, who played for the New Britain Red Sox in 1990 before the Sox traded him to Houston.

And such is the business of baseball. What looks promising and here to stay one day is traded away the next. Players and teams come and go. History shows us many examples of teams pitching one city off another for the best deal.

Remember how the New England Patriots played Mayor Mike and Convict John Rowland? What did Hartford end up with? Two buildings that enjoy massive taxpayer subsidies: an ugly convention center (Beige Box #6) and a football stadium 10 miles from downtown.

Neither has or ever will turn a profit. Neither has or ever will contribute to the vitality and livability of this city. A baseball stadium will be the same.

Mayor Segarra will defend his proposed long-term lease as an investment in Hartford. Mayor Segarra talked to the Rock Cats behind the back of New Britain’s Mayor Erin Stewart. I might suggest things would be different if a Democrat were mayor of New Britain, but Segarra took the Republican endorsement, so this skullduggery would have happened. It is petty theft of city assets.

This kind of competition is bad for cities, particularly those linked by billions of dollars in mass transit infrastructure, and linked by families and jobs. A strong New Britain is a strong Hartford, and vice versa. So why would Hartford want to poach on New Britain’s heritage?

It strikes as larceny, and shows a lack of leadership and vision. Some may chime in that the Rock Cats were going to move to Springfield, we needed to keep them in Connecticut. Let them go, I say.

Big Shiny Things do not make economic development (see Beige Box #6, above, and the last I read, the City contributes $3 million annually to maintaining the Civic Center).

Mayor Segarra’s sales pitch has not given us a return on investment, and the $60 million is a round number. How many jobs will this create? What are the downsides?

If we borrow $60 million at three percent interest annually, this stadium will run us an additional $45 million in borrowing costs. The rent from the team of $500,000 annually will maybe cover  12-13 percent of that cost.

Hartford does not have $105 million for a game played mostly by white millionaires, for the benefit of white billionaires. There are no black owners in Major League baseball. The game does not look like our city, and such a stadium takes resources from Hartford children for the 0.01 percent.

The Minnesota Twins do not technically own the New Britain Rock Cats. Nor does Dunkin Donuts’ technically own the franchise on Main Street. Yet the Twins have an important hand in the baseball operations of the Rock Cats, and are a third party beneficiary to this deal.

Nor is this the first time the Pohlads, the billionaire family that owns the Twins, has looted the public treasury to expand their baseball fortune. In Minneapolis, Jim Pohlad and his late father Carl threatened to move the Twins, and forced Minneapolis to build a $554 million stadium, $392 million in public dollars.

The Pohlads may be worth an estimated $3.6 billion, according to various sources. The Twins payroll for 2014 is one of the ten lowest in the Major Leagues, at about $86 million, more than the cost of the Segarra’s stadium. So why is the second poorest city in the nation going to build a $60 million stadium for the benefit of billionaires and millionaires?

This is a giveaway to wealthy interests, and it is not a prudent investment in our future. Such a stadium will be another piece of infrastructure the City will build and pay for, but mainly white people from the suburbs will use.

But if you judge from the comments in the Hartford Courant, no one from the suburbs will come into the city to watch baseball because of the perception of crime and lack of safety. That’s even if the baseball stadium is built across from the new police station.

Major League Baseball has done very little in the past generations to build an audience among the African-American community. The New York Times reported on April 9, 2014 that only 8.3 percent of Major League rosters on Opening Day identified themselves as Black or African-American.

That is pretty much an all-time low. Major league players make millions annually, but a Little League team here or there sponsored by a C.C. Sabathia and Curtis Granderson is insufficient. Jackie Robinson may have broken the color barrier, but it still exists, as Hank Aaron recently showed.

In April 2014, Hammerin’ Hank compared President Obama’s Republican critics to KKK members in “neckties and starched shirts.” The Atlanta Braves, his employer, received an avalanche of racist hate mail.

Racism will affect this stadium’s business prospects. For Mayor Segarra to fail to acknowledge this shows his lack of understanding of the mechanics, financing and fans of the game. Nor do the demographics support this long-term investment.

Kids in the North End of Hartford, where the stadium may be built, have no interest in baseball. This stadium will not change that. This stadium will not benefit them, and if anything, it will diminish various opportunities available to them because City resources will be squandered on baseball, and not youth development.

The Wall Street Journal reported the average age of a World Series viewer in 2013 was 54.4 years old. Very few Hartford kids watch baseball. Those 54.4 year old white men are the same ones who have racial tendencies that keep them from Hartford. To those men, New Britain is ok.

Baseball will not generate support in Hartford, and there will be a smaller audience in 20 years. Perhaps Mayor Segarra seeks to shore up electoral support in the Puerto Rican community by bringing baseball here. If so, it is a short-sighted aim at re-election, and will cost us for generations.

Part of that price stems from the misuse of a valuable parcel of downtown real estate. We are not talking about Wrigley Field here, plopped in the middle of a neighborhood that contributes to economic growth 81 days a year.

A stadium that only operates 50-75 days a year in Hartford will not bring much wealth to the city. Stadium jobs are low-paid service jobs. Stadiums need parking, and asphalt and auto-based infrastructure.

This will force other nearby land to remain fallow for 300 days a year, and the stadium itself will be fallow for 280-300 days a year. We need 365 day a year infrastructure. A baseball stadium will not do that.

To the members of the Court of Common Council, I beg you, do not vote for this boondoggle. This baseball stadium is bad news. Few things are sadder than watching a professional baseball game with 20 people in the stands. And that is the predictable result of this stadium.

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