Spring, in my mind, means one thing — the return of baseball. A few years ago, there was a campaign to make Opening Day a federal holiday. I signed the petition. From April through October, more often than not, there’s baseball on in my office during the afternoons, at home in the evenings, and on the radio in the car while I’m driving between the two. Six weeks in, I’ve already been to both Major and Minor League Baseball games, and before the summer is out, I’ll have gone to more of each. My family tends to plan our vacations around ballparks and team schedules.
So you might think that I’d be excited about the way that High Point City Council marked Opening Day this year. On Monday, April 3, as teams across the country opened their seasons in front of excited fans, High Point voted, 8-1, to spend $15 million on a downtown ballpark project. The whole thing will actually cost the city more like $30 million, but this was the first $15 million for land acquisition. And despite my love for the game, I was saddened by the news.
Over the past year, I’ve looked at various ballpark projects around North Carolina. This time last year, I was thinking about a different ballpark project in High Point. Then came Fayetteville and bizarre plans for funding. And now it’s back to High Point, where the city is convinced building a ballpark complex would act as a catalyst to bring about tremendous economic development and rejuvenate downtown.
And who exactly is going to play in this ballpark? Well, if you know anything about how baseball leagues are structured, you’ll know that Major League Baseball (MLB) teams have Minor League Baseball (MiLB) affiliates that they use, essentially, for player development. Which means that all the major and minor league teams, at all their various levels, are part of one enormous system. The people running that system are concerned, among other things, about territory.
High Point, it turns out, is too close to the Winston-Salem Dash and the Greensboro Grasshoppers, so MiLB won’t let them have an MLB-affiliated team. Instead, High Point’s going with an independent league, a small group of eight teams mostly concentrated in the Northeast. Some of these guys used to play big league ball. Others might someday in the future. But these aren’t guys in the pipeline for major league contracts.
And that’s OK. I’m sure the games will be a lot of fun. They’ll probably attract some local fans. But there’s a reason MiLB doesn’t allow too many teams too close together. It’s because too much supply can outstrip demand. You end up spreading the fans too thin and none of the teams do very well in terms of attendance or revenue.
But that hasn’t stopped High Point from committing $15 million in taxpayer money to this. It’s one thing for a private investor or business to make that gamble. It’s a whole different matter for cities to do so with limited taxpayer money with which they’ve been entrusted.
High Point should have steered clear of this project. Grant the zoning and permits and such that a private company would need to build the ballpark downtown? Sure. Work with them on parking? OK. But much as I believe that baseball is magical, I also know that it’s business. Local governments shouldn’t use taxpayer dollars to build ballparks for teams any more than they should build a store for Target or a restaurant for McDonald’s. These are private businesses, and the right source for funding them is private investors.
Julie Tisdale is city and county policy analyst for the John Locke Foundation.