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In Minor-League Cities, Stadium Use Key To Job Creation

The Hartford Courant

HARTFORD — On summer nights, fans in Fort Wayne, Ind., flock to the city's ballpark to watch the Single A TinCaps play. But it's the year-round use of the publicly financed stadium that has generated 600 part-time jobs, helped revitalize downtown, and could provide a blueprint for Hartford's future as a minor-league baseball city.

When Hartford officials announced the potential move of the New Britain Rock Cats to a $60 million park north of downtown, the projected creation of the equivalent of 650 full-time jobs drew strong skepticism. Hartford officials and a city consultant said the key to those jobs will be keeping the park in use throughout the year with lots of concerts and other events, just as Fort Wayne has.

"That's the number of jobs that will have to be filled," said the consultant, Jason Thompson, a vice president at the Brailsford & Dunlavey management firm.

Of five minor league franchises surveyed by the Courant, two said they use their stadiums all year. In addition to Fort Wayne, the Birmingham Barons opened a year-round downtown ballpark in 2013. In the other cities, the stadiums are used only for baseball and generate 20-30 full-time jobs and 150-200 part-time seasonal jobs.

In Hartford, where the plan still needs city council approval, officials envision their ballpark as a year-round entertainment center, hosting concerts and performances, university and community events, ice-skating and hockey, trade shows, food and beverage festivals and corporate events.

"Brand new, successful ballparks operate this way," Thompson said.

Thompson, whose Washington, D.C.-based company has consulted on dozens of minor-league stadium projects, said his projections include 35-40 full-time positions for the baseball team, including ticket sales, public relations, marketing, grounds crew and concessions.

If the park attracted events all year, 600-700 part-time positions would be needed, he said.

After the stadium opens — projected to be in 2016 — businesses nearby would need to hire more people to handle extra hotel, restaurant and bar visits, Thompson said.

When Birmingham opened its new park, the team's full-time staff grew from a dozen to 25 and the part-time staff more than doubled. On game days 200 to 300 people are working in the park, and 100 to 175 work at non-baseball events, said Barons general manager Jonathan Nelson, adding that they expect to increase that number as they bring in more events.

Nelson said there was skepticism that the ballpark would bring people downtown or change the perception that it was unsafe. The team drew 400,000 fans last year and construction of an apartment complex just beyond center field will begin next month.

"We're generating civic pride and excitement," he said, adding that when he walks around the park, he often hears people say, "I can't believe I'm in Birmingham."

Dan O'Connell, president and CEO of Visit Fort Wayne, said the TinCaps ballpark, which was built five miles from an old park in 2009, has made a difference in revitalizing downtown and attracting groups to the city's convention center, which does about 50 conventions a year for groups of 500 to 2,000 people.

"We don't get a convention that doesn't ask about ballgames and other events," O'Connell said. "It's a heck of a lot more than a ballpark."

A $100 million private/public project that includes a five-story parking garage, five-story office tower and 13-story residential building with townhouses, apartments and condominiums is also planned largely as a result of having the stadium downtown, said Greg Leatherman, Fort Wayne's director of community development.

As part of the move, the stadium went from being used 70 times a year for games to about 600 times a year for events that include concerts, weddings, receptions, corporate gatherings, beer expos and more. As a result, the full-time, year-round staff nearly tripled from a dozen to 30 and the number of people working part-time grew from about 150 to nearly 600, according to team president Mike Nutter.

"In our case, it's light years," Nutter said of the change between the old baseball-only model to the new multi-use model that he estimated attracted more than 90,000 people to the park last year for non-baseball events.

Experts who study the relationship between sports stadiums and economic development have said some of Hartford's projections are inflated.

"Certainly 600 seems way out of the ballpark," said Nola Agha, an assistant professor of sports management for the University of San Francisco. "You're never going to get close to that 600 number in reality.

Leatherman also cautioned that Fort Wayne spent years on financial and infrastructure planning in advance of the team's move.

"You have to put good planning and preparation on the front end," he said.

For other franchises in the Eastern League, with the Rock Cats, that use their stadiums only for baseball, the job numbers and economic impact are reduced.

In Portland, Maine, where the Sea Dogs play, vice president and general manager Geoff Iacuessa said the team has 20 full-time, year-round employees and 5 full-time in season employees. The team also has about 250 people working on game days.

"Every market is different. We're on the small side," Iacuessa said.

Jay Burnham, media relations manager for the Richmond Flying Squirrels, said his team employs about 30 full-time staff members and another 150 to 200 part-time and seasonal workers. The team has some offseason events but the stadium isn't used year-round, he said, because it's not winterized.

In Harrisburg, Pa., home of the Washington Senators' Double A affiliate, Terry Byrom said the team has about 22 year-round full-time employees and figures there probably were between 170 to 200 people working in the ballpark for the team's recent game against Akron.

Byrom added that each team's needs are different based on their locations.

"We are on an island in the middle of the Susquehanna River, so about three-quarters of a mile from downtown," he said, adding that Hartford would probably need more employees by virtue of having a downtown stadium.

And there is skepticism from at least one member of the Hartford City Council, who said it shouldn't even consider moving forward with the project until it gets a lot more information, especially about the jobs numbers.

"The first word I think of is ridiculous," councilman Larry Deutsch said. "It must be fictional."

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