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Cleared for Takeoff

Any other time of the year, finding Fort Lauderdale Stadium is tricky. Crouched in the southeast corner of Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport, it's obscured from the view of those driving down Commercial Boulevard by Lockhart Stadium, where the Fort Lauderdale Strikers used to play professional soccer.

But during spring training, which begins Saturday, lines of cars lead the way to the old baseball park. For the last couple of years, the Baltimore Orioles have trained and played exhibition games there, but one of the first things visitors notice is the stadium façade's gray paint, left over from the days when the Orioles' predecessors, the New York Yankees, played there. Otherwise, the generation-old stadium is an unimposing concrete half-bowl with 8300 seats spread out like a fan. The old-fashioned, turquoise-colored seats feature metal armrests, curved backs, and lots of leg room. The cheap seats along the first- and third-base lines are even more old-fashioned; they're metal bleachers.

The playing field, like any other, features a meticulously raked diamond and a bright green infield and outfield, which are hemmed in by a wooden fence. Anyone sitting in the cheap seats has to put up with the occasional drunken fan, and everyone has to put up with the screaming corporate jets that take off periodically just beyond the left-field fence.

But when the players arrive, the distractions disappear. Because the stadium is relatively small, they look like humans, not ants. When fans call out, the players hear. Some even tip their hats. And when the home plate umpire yells "play ball," everyone hears him loud and clear.

Built in 1962 for the New York Yankees, Fort Lauderdale Stadium has played host to some of baseball's greats, including Reggie Jackson and Catfish Hunter. The Yankees returned every spring for 33 years, but when their latest in a string of leases expired in 1995, they moved across the state to Tampa, into a brand-new, $30 million version of the Bronx's Yankee Stadium. Called Legends Field and built by Hillsborough County, the 10,368-seat stadium is, in many ways, bigger and better than Fort Lauderdale Stadium. In fact, its clubhouse and training and weight rooms are more spacious than those in Yankee Stadium itself.

Fort Lauderdale Stadium doesn't have a clubhouse per se, just a locker room about the size of the weight room at Camden Yards in Baltimore and a weight room about the size of a closet. But those kinds of details supposedly didn't matter when the Baltimore Orioles arrived in 1996, because, at the time, the Orioles had nowhere else to go. This year, however, it's the bottom of the ninth for Fort Lauderdale Stadium, and there are two outs and nobody on base.

With multimillion-dollar spring training stadiums popping up all over Florida, Fort Lauderdale is way behind the times, and city officials know it. In fact, last year some of them made an effort to keep the Orioles in the city for good. They agreed to look into building nearby practice fields for the team's minor-leaguers, who now play in Sarasota, and renovating the existing stadium so that there are more seats, skyboxes, and advertising space, among other amenities. They also discovered that doing so would cost up to $23 million.

Of course the city can't afford that kind of bill. So, armed with an economic-impact study that predicts hundreds of new jobs and a $26 million annual boost to Broward County's economy, Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jim Naugle and other city and county officials want state legislators to cough up state sales-tax money to pay it. Their aim is to get the Orioles to sign a fifteen-year contract. But they've either overlooked, or chosen to ignore, a few important details.

First, the jobs and the money a renovated stadium is supposed to provide are myths. The money spent on tickets, parking, and merchandising, for example, would otherwise be spent elsewhere, so it won't help to boost the economy at all.

"The economic-impact stuff is utter nonsense," Andrew Zimbalist, a professor of economics at Smith College and coauthor of Sports, Jobs & Taxes said after reviewing the economic-impact study. "It's unreliable because it's based on misconstrued and misleading sets of assumptions and methodology. It's done more poorly here than most I've seen.... The conclusions are not at all reliable."

Second, even though they refuse to address the issue directly, the Orioles want a brand-new stadium, not a renovated one. "We would look at Fort Lauderdale as a long-term option depending on the funding available to satisfy the criteria of developing a first-class complex consistent with those that have recently been developed in Florida and Arizona," says Rick Horrow, the Miami-based facility development consultant for the Orioles.

And third, Fort Lauderdale's request for a total of $36 million, which would cover renovations and interest on the debt, "will never see the light of day," according to one state legislator. The chairmen of the tax committees in both the state's Senate and House of Representatives must approve the request before it comes up for a vote. Many state legislators are still steaming about sports mogul H. Wayne Huizenga's request last year for $60 million of state sales-tax money to renovate Pro Player Stadium, which the Miami Dolphins share with the Florida Marlins. Huizenga had already received $60 million in 1993 to build the stadium for the Marlins; two dips in the public trough for the same facility were too much.

 

In fact, legislators are now reconsidering the whole idea of using taxpayer money for professional sports team facilities. So Fort Lauderdale appears to be asking for too much too late.

By today's standards Fort Lauderdale Stadium is completely unacceptable for major-league play. Sure, it has a diamond and bases and dugouts -- all the essential hardware needed for a game. But the wooden scoreboard, for example, allows very little space for advertising, and the team offices are still lined with wood paneling.

Renovations would cost between $17.9 million and $23 million, according to the economic-impact study conducted by Deloitte & Touche of New Jersey in 1996. Commissioned in part by the City of Fort Lauderdale, the study resulted in two bills -- one for each house of the Florida Legislature -- that basically requested the same thing: a change in the 1991 law allowing state sales-tax money to be spent on sports facilities to attract professional teams to Florida. The law does not allow for the money to be spent on fixing up old stadiums for spring training, which is exactly what Fort Lauderdale needs.

Based on discussions with Orioles management, the study suggests building eight skyboxes, more grandstand seats, bigger and better bathrooms and concessions, two new clubhouses (one for the home team, a smaller one for visitors), new administrative offices for the Orioles and the city (which manages the stadium), a souvenir shop, and improvements in ticketing, entrances, and ramps that will get fans in and out of the stadium more quickly.

Neither Horrow nor John Maroon, director of public relations for the Orioles, would verify that the items listed in the study would be enough to guarantee a fifteen-year contract between the team and Fort Lauderdale. But Maroon did admit that the Orioles want more revenue-generating amenities as well as nearby fields for its minor-leaguers. The best deal the city can offer is four fields in Pompano Beach, ten miles away. Maroon would only say that "in a perfect world, we would have them all in the same facility."

"We have to look at what's best for the organization," he added. "If it works out here, great. If it works out in another city in Florida, great."

Fort Lauderdale's stadium manager Vince Gizzi says the city has no intention of bulldozing the old stadium to build the Orioles something brand-new.

"Spring training is something special," he explains. "It's not like going to a Marlins game. You can get right up close to the players. You'll see them walking right by the fence there, signing autographs. We would like to keep this look, keep it intimate."

Gizzi chalks up the Orioles' evasive comments to strategy -- and a big head. "It's an ego thing," he says. "They want to see how much they can get out of these cities."

The economic-impact study alone cost $75,000. Suggested by City Manager George Hanbury and other Fort Lauderdale administrators, it was paid for by parties that have a vested interest in spring training: the Broward Economic Development Council, the Broward County Convention and Visitors Bureau, the City of Pompano Beach, the City of Fort Lauderdale, and the Orioles themselves. Four of five Fort Lauderdale city commissioners voted in favor of the study in April 1996, and it was completed in December, a few months before the start of the 1997 state legislative session.

The study predicts enormous benefits for Broward County. But it also makes a few questionable assumptions. Not only would a renovated stadium be home to the Orioles for six weeks each spring; it would also house a minor-league team for six months after that and serve as a venue for moneymaking events such as car shows and musical concerts. The result: an annual economic windfall of $26 million, money that would be spent in the stadium and the surrounding community, in places like hotels and restaurants. The study also concluded that a renovated stadium would create a total of 448 full-time, permanent jobs in the county.

Those figures sound great to city officials like Fort Lauderdale's Vice Mayor Tim Smith, who sees a renovated stadium as a good investment. Mayor Naugle concurs, and Commissioner John Aurelius points out that spring training attracts loads of tourists.

 

The study, however, leaves a lot of room for error. The most outlandish assumption is that a great deal of new money, also called "gross expenditures," will be brought to Broward County by tourists. But spring training games, in general, don't attract very many tourists. A study by John F. Zipp, a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin, indicates that only 5 percent of the visitors to Lee County in March 1994 were there to see the Minnesota Twins and the Boston Red Sox play baseball. Tourists may go to baseball games, but Zipp found that in most cases they were in the host city for other reasons and just happened to take in a game.

Most spring training fans live within 25 miles of the stadium -- which the Deloitte & Touche study acknowledges. As a result, the money spent on the ball games and game-related items is not "new" money, according to Zimbalist. If it isn't spent at the ballpark, it's spent instead on other recreational activities, he said. For example, if a family of four skips the beach on Saturday and hits the ball park instead, it will pay $36 for grandstand seats ($9 each), perhaps another $20 on food and sodas, $3 to park, and $1 for a program -- a total of $60 for the day. If the family had decided on the beach instead, it might have spent $25 for lunch, $25 to rent in-line skates or bicycles, and $10 to park -- also $60. So the money is being spent, with or without the ballpark.

"The gross expenditures approach is useless for answering any question related to whether the stadium will add to or subtract from the local economy," said Roger Noll, an economist at Stanford University who coauthored Sports, Jobs & Taxes with Zimbalist.

Another problem with the study is that it makes use of an exaggerated economic multiplier, which indicates the number of times that a dollar generated by an activity, in this case the ball game, is respent in a community. The idea is simple: If you buy a pizza for $12, the restaurant owner will put that money toward a variety of things, including salaries, ingredients to make more pizzas, and cash for his own expenditures, like shoes. In other words your money starts a ripple effect that helps the overall economy. The study predicts that each dollar spent in the renovated stadium, in particular, would be spent locally 2.352 times.

That number is "absurd," according to Zimbalist, because in the study the number is based, once again, on gross spending, which takes into account the kind of spending activity that only tourists would engage in.

"They haven't adjusted for the fact that some people who spend money in March may be coming to Fort Lauderdale for other reasons and going to baseball games [as a side trip]," Zimbalist says. "And then they multiply by a number that's way too large."

As for creating new jobs, Broward County's unemployment rate is already relatively low, at about 4.5 percent. While some unemployed residents could conceivably benefit from new stadium-related jobs, Noll says the county's rate is so negligible that the jobs would probably be filled by people in the existing work force. So, once again, the effect on the economy would be almost insignificant.

A few benefits not mentioned in the study are worth mentioning, because they directly affect some of the parties most interested in keeping the Orioles in Broward County. Fort Lauderdale's current lease with the Orioles, which expires after the 1998 season is over, includes the following city revenues and perks for city officials: 24 tickets (8 skybox and 16 box seats) for every home game and workout day; 60 complimentary passes for each game; 25 percent of gross admission receipts (the Yankees used to pay 15 percent); 50 percent of the scoreboard advertising revenue; 100 percent of advertising space sold off the field, in places like restrooms and near concession stands; and 100 percent of parking revenues, about $7500 a game (which the Yankees kept). Add to that all the "free" publicity Fort Lauderdale gets from regular sports coverage as well as the sunny ads aired on TV in snowy Baltimore this time of the year.

Of course, about a hundred yards from Fort Lauderdale Stadium, another sports-facility renovation is going on, and it isn't costing taxpayers a dime. Workers are frantically trying to get the old Lockhart Stadium in tiptop shape for the return of professional soccer to South Florida. On March 15 the Miami Fusion will open their season in a renovated Lockhart Stadium for just more than $4 million. Paid for with investor money, the updated facility will feature a refurbished field and skyboxes, a second press box, lighting designed to increase illumination of the field four-fold, upgraded locker rooms, a new sound system, and, at 21,000 seats, more than twice the stadium's original seating capacity, according to Fusion president Kenneth Horowitz. Add to that Fusion Park, a tailgate area outside the gates. Admittedly the Lockhart site is not ideal: An expanded facility would make room for a state-of-the-art clubhouse, bigger and better training rooms, and more offices and parking. But, at the moment, the Fusion don't have any more space. If they did, they'd be willing to spend even more than $4 million.

 

"I'm certainly not complaining," Horowitz says about the expense. "Fair is neither here nor there. We were on a mission."

And that mission may be just getting under way. Some are already wondering why a supposedly profitable baseball team is asking for an updated stadium at no cost, while a fledgling soccer team is willing to shell out its own money. Should the Orioles choose to leave, the already appreciative Fusion may be able to expand their operation.

"We all knew going into this that [the Orioles] wanted to call Fort Lauderdale home and that there was a price the city would have to pay for that," Gizzi says. "But there are plans for [Fort Lauderdale Stadium] if the Orioles back out. That's actually what we [the city's parks and recreation department] would support -- working with the Fusion. I'm sure they would want that property."

Jerry Baumann, age 39, remembers his very first baseball game. He doesn't quite remember how old he was ("seven or eight, I guess") or if he had a hot dog or popcorn. But he remembers the game. Orioles vs. the Yankees. The Bronx. The Yankees won that day, and second baseman Bobby Richardson became young Baumann's first hero.

Baumann isn't in grade school anymore, but he's still a big baseball fan and a member of the Orioles Host Committee, a group of local residents seeking public and financial support to keep the Orioles in Fort Lauderdale. He says the group's enthusiasm has waned since last year, when a sit-down breakfast at a local hotel was put together so that state and local politicians could rub elbows with the players. This year's buffet-style breakfast was held last Sunday in the ballpark.

"I have been to meetings on this, and I have not seen dedication from the highest levels of government that they want the Orioles to stay," Baumann says. "There needs to be more of a sense of urgency, and I don't know why there's not. It's really been a half-hearted attempt to keep them. I really think the Orioles are gone."

If they do leave, it would mean the end of an era in Fort Lauderdale. Spring training in Florida dates back to 1888 with the Washington Statesmen. By the 1920s ten of the sixteen major-league teams were training in Florida, mostly on the west coast, but they moved around a lot until about the mid-'40s, when many teams looked for a place to call home.

In 1962 the Yankees settled in Fort Lauderdale, and for more than twenty years, everyone was happy. But by the late '80s, the Yanks were talking about having their minor-league players nearby so that coaches could observe their play. Just a few years later, they were asking for major improvements to the stadium. After their lease expired in 1994, the Yankees stayed on for an extra year for just one reason: Their brand-new training facility in Tampa wasn't finished.

Enter the Orioles, who'd been sharing training facilities with the St. Louis Cardinals in St. Petersburg and with their own minor-leaguers in Sarasota and wanted their own stadium. But when it comes to taking root anywhere, except in Baltimore, the Orioles have a spotty record. They originally set up spring training in Bobby Maduro Stadium in Miami in 1959. By the mid-'80s, facing the end of a lease, the Orioles indicated that they would leave Miami unless renovations were made to the stadium. Horrow, meanwhile, was negotiating with the city of Homestead, 30 miles south of Miami, for a brand-new stadium. The Orioles' colors -- black and orange -- and their logo were included in early drawings of the stadium, according to Tad DeMilly, mayor of Homestead at the time. But because Homestead was so far south -- and therefore far away from most opposing teams' training facilities -- they backed out of the deal and convinced Miami to pump $2 million worth of renovations into Bobby Maduro Stadium in 1989. A year later, after spring training was over, the Orioles left Miami-Dade for good.

 

Homestead, in the end, was even worse off. Negotiations had proceeded so far that, when the Orioles backed out, the city had to search frantically for another team to make use of the $30-million facility already under construction. Homestead eventually made a deal with the Cleveland Indians, then took it on the chin again when the Indians backed out after Hurricane Andrew caused $8 million in damage to the stadium in 1992.

"We built that stadium for the Orioles," DeMilly says. "They came in and helped design it, and then decided they didn't want to stay there. So beware. Caveat emptor."

Despite their anger Homestead officials decided not to pursue the matter legally. Many ball clubs were either moving at the time or looking to move, and city officials feared Homestead would be blackballed if they complained. Between 1984 and 1998, 23 of Major League Baseball's 28 teams changed their spring training locations. Of the twenty teams in Florida, sixteen moved to new digs, all but two of which were brand-new facilities. Last year the St. Louis Cardinals left St. Petersburg after 50 years to play in a new $28 million stadium in Jupiter; and the Atlanta Braves left West Palm Beach after 35 years to play in Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando. And, of course, the New York Yankees left Fort Lauderdale to play in Tampa.

After the Orioles left Miami, they bounced between St. Petersburg and Sarasota, then moved to Fort Lauderdale in 1996 and signed a one-year lease with a one-year extension option, making it very clear they were looking for a permanent home, the kind other teams were getting. Other cities tried to recruit the Orioles, including Daytona Beach and Plant City. Osceola County, faced with the possibility of the Houston Astros leaving behind a five-and-a-half-field training complex, offered the Orioles a $6 million renovation to increase the Kissimmee stadium capacity from 5000 to 8000 seats. In exchange the Orioles would have to stay put in Kissimmee for twenty years. Osceola County Manager Bill Goaziou says that by December he was "75 percent certain" the Orioles were headed for Kissimmee. But the team wanted the county to promise not to recruit other teams while it negotiated with Fort Lauderdale. Osceola County said "no way" and ended up working things out with the Houston Astros.

So the Orioles are still in Fort Lauderdale, where each spring about $100,000 in facility and field maintenance keeps the stadium looking as pretty as possible. The lease is up next year, but two more one-year options have been added. But even if the city does come up with the state money needed to renovate the stadium, not everyone is convinced the Orioles will stay.

"Even if you make those improvements, in a couple of years, they'd still pull up stakes," Cary Keno, a former Fort Lauderdale city commissioner predicts. "They want a brand-new stadium."

In 1995 then-Commissioner Keno suggested the city tear down old Fort Lauderdale Stadium and build an office park that would pay taxes. You would have thought he had threatened to pave over the beach.

"These teams, they move around so much, and they have no loyalty," Keno says, explaining why he voted against spending money for an economic-impact study. "You can get a study to say anything you want it to. If they were bringing in the Green Bay Packers, I would support any study that said that was a good idea. I'm a big Packers fan. These studies are geared toward people who love sports."

During an early meeting on the Orioles, Commissioner John Aurelius was sporting an Orioles cap. He told Keno he was "way off base," in opposing spring training, and he continues to spout baseball analogies whenever discussing the relationship between the Orioles and the city.

"As a city official, I want to bring a team effort to be a major-league player," he says. "I'm in favor of putting together a community partnership." Regarding the Orioles he says: "They would have to step up to the plate and be a partner here."

So far the partnership is comprised of those folks who spent $75,000 on the economic-impact study and the two state legislators who sponsored the bills that would change state law and give Fort Lauderdale $36 million. The money would be given in the form of a $1.2 million sales-tax rebate over the next 30 years. The bills' sponsors, Sen. Matt Meadows and Rep. Mandy Dawson-White, both Fort Lauderdale Democrats, did not return phone calls for this article.

The law Meadows and Dawson-White seek to change was written in 1991 and allows city-owned stadiums a rebate of up to $2 million a year on the state sales taxes they pay on everything from tickets to hot dogs. Stadiums usually generate more than that amount in taxes, so the law was designed as an incentive for cities to build new stadiums and attract professional sports teams to Florida. But existing spring training facilities do not qualify.

 

The law worked. Since it was passed in 1991, seven facilities have been built, and four new sport teams have moved to Florida, including the Florida Marlins, the Jacksonville Jaguars, and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

"We wrote [the law] to try to attract new franchises, not help the ones that were already in the state," says Larry Pendleton, president of the Florida Sports Foundation, a public/private agency responsible for sports promotion and development in the state. "At some point this bill must be [taken off the books], because it costs the state a lot of money."

The public may feel the same way. When Huizenga asked for another $60 million last year, House and Senate members were flooded with faxes and phone calls from constituents voicing their dismay over the request. In the wake of the debacle, the Fort Lauderdale bills were never even brought up for votes. Whether or not they will be brought before the House and Senate this year is a good question. Although the bills are on the list to be considered for the upcoming session, which starts March 3, Broward County Legislative Delegation chairman, Sen. Howard Forman (D-Pembroke Pines), was surprised that Meadows and Dawson-White had agreed to support them.

"I'm a little ambivalent about it," Forman said. "If there's a lot of local support, I may change my mind. But the first I've heard about it [this year] is your call."

Whatever he's heard, the bills probably won't get past their respective tax committees. In 1991, when the law was created, Democrats controlled the state legislature. Now, however, fiscally conservative Republicans steer these tax committees, and they don't like the sports-facility use of taxpayer money one bit.

"Absolutely no way," says Bob Starks, chairman of the House Finance and Taxation Committee of the Fiscal Responsibility Council and a Republican from Casselberry. "And I don't mean to be so blunt, but it's the taxpayers' money. If Fort Lauderdale wants to renovate its stadium, more power to them. But if we do this for them, we would have every public facility asking for money that should be going for education, job training, transportation, school construction. It is just not good public policy to spend tax dollars on renovating sports stadiums. It won't even see the light of day."

As chairman, Starks sets his committee's agenda and decides which bills to hear, hold, or withdraw. "I think I'm gonna create another category. The Deep Six category," he says. "They're in a dream world."

Sen. John Ostalkiewicz (R-Windermere), chairman of the Finance and Tax Subcommittee of the Senate's Ways and Means Committee, also is blunt. "I think the chances of that passing are somewhere between slim and nil," he says. "I'm not sure exactly where in there, but somewhere. I won't hear the bill."

Fort Lauderdale Assistant City Manager Bud Bentley won't discuss what the city will do if the state legislature rejects the bills. Other cities have borrowed money to build or renovate sports stadiums, but Bentley says the city wouldn't be able to afford the debt payments.

Fort Myers wooed the Boston Red Sox from Winter Haven in 1993 with a $24 million stadium built with money raised from selling municipal bonds. The city pays $1.7 million a year on the debt with interest, though it gets only $210,000 in rent, $110,000 in ticket surcharges, and $50,000 in parking fees. Other cities and counties have passed new taxes on services used mostly by tourists to pay for debt payments, but Broward County already raised its tourist tax on hotels from three to five cents in 1996 to pay for the new Panther Arena in Sunrise and is unlikely to do it again.

As bleak as the outlook is, the two bills are Fort Lauderdale's last hope to hold on to spring training. Without the state money, Fort Lauderdale will remain as it is, a relic of yesteryear.

"The industry has evolved into Legends Field," Horrow says. "It remains to be seen how the existing infrastructure can compete."

Without minor-league practice fields, new skyboxes, and bigger offices and clubhouses, Fort Lauderdale Stadium won't be able to compete. But, for the time being, the Orioles will have to settle for the $50,000 to $100,000 the city spends to maintain the place. This year, in preparation for the Orioles' arrival, the field and surrounding grounds were spruced up, the lights were inspected, the dim bulbs replaced, and a new coat of paint was applied to the seats, dugouts, and outfield fence. And -- oh, yeah -- the grease traps in the concessions areas and the drains in the bathrooms were flushed.

 


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