Wednesday, September 03, 2003

According to Lynn Sislo, the city of Tulsa is considering building a stadium downtown that would have a seating capacity of about 20,000. She's wondering about a number of issues involved, like parking, traffic, and the constant in urban politics that money spent on big-ticket items like sports-venues is very likely money that could be better spent on sewer maintenance, police precincts, schools, arts programs, and the like.

I found this story interesting because Buffalo has twice in the last two decades built new sports venues downtown. First, there's the baseball stadium. Its current name is Dunn Tire Park, but many Buffalonians (like myself) still think of it by its original moniker, Pilot Field. (It also spent a few years as North AmeriCare Park, a wonderful bit of HMO-love there.) The park was built in the late 1980s and opened (I think) in 1989. It used to see a lot heavier attendance for ballgames than it does now; I attended several games that were actually sell-outs. Parking didn't seem to be much of an issue, but my memory could be faulty. The park is just a block away from the nearest Metro-Rail stop, so a lot of folks park a ways away and ride the train to the stadium, for example.

Of course, it's one of the never-dying lies in America that sports venues spur economic development. "Restaurateurs will be champing at the bit to open near the park," we are told. "Think of the building that will go on around the new arena," we constantly hear. Of course, this is all nonsense. The area surrounding Pilot Field is no more hopping than it was in the early 1990s, when Buffalo's population was something like 30,000 people greater than it is now. Ditto HSBC Arena, the venue built for the Sabres in the mid-1990s. And it's like this everywhere: just read through the current tour of all thirty Major League ballparks on, and note how few of those articles describe a hotbed of activity beyond the ballpark walls. Sports arenas don't generate economic activity by themselves. They can help attract tourist attention if they're used for lots of other uses, but even those types of tourist-attraction events tend to attract insular fans who don't exactly spend lots of time touring the cities themselves.

Another thing worth remembering about Buffalo's ballpark is the climate in which it was built. Fourteen years seems like an incredibly long time ago now, but in the late 1980s, Major League Baseball's giant problems with competitive balance between large-market and small-market teams was only beginning to emerge into consciousness. Thus, Buffalo built Pilot Field with the dreams of one day soon being granted a big-league franchise. In fact, Buffalo was one of the finalists for the 1993 round of MLB expansion -- when, ultimately, the Florida Marlins and Colorado Rockies were created -- largely on the strength of Buffalo's growing rep as a sports town (the Bills were just beginning their Golden Age of AFC dominance) and the beauty of the ballpark Buffalo had built. The park was actually designed so that, even though it seats about 20,000 people, it could fairly easily be expanded to the 40,000-capacity it would need as a MLB park. It's interesting to me to note that Baltimore's Oriole Park at Camden Yards is always mentioned as the starting point to baseball's return to the traditional type of stadiums (baseball-use only, open outfields to overlook the cityscape, brick architecture, etc). But the trend actually started earlier than that, in the minor leagues. Buffalo was a part of that trend.

Nowadays, though, Dunn Tire Park Pilot Field is looking a bit worn at the edges. The stands are never packed anymore, though the place does do pretty good business during the summer. A lot of that is due to the fact that the Bisons are a minor league team, and thus their fortunes are pretty closely tied to that of the Cleveland Indians, their MLB parent club. The Indians are rebuilding right now, which makes the Buffalo team something of a pit-stop for talented players on the way up. And with the final burial of Buffalo's onetime hopes of joining the Majors with a franchise of its own, the stadium has never been upgraded. It's still a nice place to catch a game in summer, and the drum-and-bugle-corps shows they have there are a lot of fun, but the ballpark is no longer the place to be in downtown Buffalo, as it once was.

As for HSBC Arena, there's another sore spot. Built for the Sabres at a time when Adelphia Cable was on the rise and Buffalo was eagerly hitching its fortunes to Adelphia's star, the Arena is a beautiful venue indeed. But all the usual arguments were trotted out: without the added revenue of luxury boxes, the Sabres would lose money and then leave town. It would spur development in Buffalo's Cobblestone District. (Nope.) It would be used for all manner of special conventions and out-of-town events. (Not really. Part of the NCAA Men's Basketball tournament was held here a few years back, but that was that. This is a constant point of annoyance with me. Why can't Buffalo host a Final Four? or the Nationals or World Figure Skating Championships? No reason that I can see, except we never seem to try to get those events. As Toby Ziegler once said on The West Wing: "It's not the ones we lose that bother me, it's the ones we don't suit up for.")

And of course, Adelphia's fortunes dried up spectacularly in yet another of those "Big company cooking the books" scandals. The Sabres were sold, and for a time it appeared that they might be sold to someone willing to move them elsewhere. I was prepared to simply say, "Fine, let 'em go," until I learned that the Arena's operations are so expensive to the City and the County that without the revenue the Sabres bring into the place, the Arena would likely be shut down entirely. Talk about putting the horse in front of the cart, eh?

I don't know how this all reflects on Tulsa, a town with which I am totally unfamiliar. I know that Tulsa's population is bigger than Buffalo's, but I don't know if that reflects the metro area or if Tulsa is one of those towns that thwarted suburban outflight by annexing the suburbs, which Buffalo can't do. I also don't know if Tulsa has any major league dreams of its own (the Tulsa Sabres, perhaps?). I'm always of mixed-mind on these kinds of things. I do think that big-league sports events can enhance a city's image, but only if they're done right. And it's not even always necessary. New Orleans has plenty of cache, despite the fact that the Saints always stink. Austin, Texas seems to be doing just fine these days.

So, on the basis of Buffalo's experience, I would say to Tulsa: Be careful. If you do it, do it right, and for the right reasons. Don't delude yourselves into thinking that downtown will become like Times Square by virtue of a big arena or ballpark. And if the choice is having an arena or having schools and arts, choose schools and arts. Please oh please.

(Hey, Sean and Scott: You fellows have Tulsa connections. What do you think of this? Care to weigh in?)

No comments: