Monday, May 08, 2006

In Hadlock's Shadow, part III

[This is the final installment of an article I wrote in 2004, on the effects of professional baseball on the city of Portland, Maine]


Impact on the neighborhood

Within walking distance of Hadlock Field are a several businesses that might be of interest to baseball fans coming and going from a Sea Dogs game. Neighborhood markets, restaurants, a gas station—all of these businesses would likely see some benefit with an average of 5 to 6,000 fans attending games at Hadlock and spending money in the neighborhood surrounding the stadium.

Terroni’s Market has been serving the Park Street neighborhood for years. Selling the usual small store fare of soda, chips, candy, and pizza, as well as one of the city’s better Italian sandwiches, the store’s location makes it a convenient and inexpensive place for fans to sate some pre or post-game hunger or thirst.

Ron Hamilton, store manager told me that he hasn’t noticed much of an increase in cash receipts on the day of a Sea Dogs game.

“We don’t get a lot of customers from the Sea Dogs because they can’t bring food into the game,” said Hamilton. “There has been some increase after games this year, but prior to this year, I haven’t noticed a difference.”

Across the street, Mark Gibson of Hamilton’s Service Station told me that the Sea Dogs aren’t a benefit to the station’s business.

“The fans keep us from being able to do our job,” said Gibson. “We can’t road test cars because we can’t get out of the lot due to the traffic being backed up. Also, we lose business as people don’t stop for gas because they know it will be a hassle getting out.” When asked if the Sea Dogs have done anything to compensate the station for their inconvenience. “We get free tickets to one of the games each year,” he said. “We also get some business from the Sea Dogs employees, like Charlie Eshbach (Sea Dogs General Manager); he’s a real nice guy.”

Sonny’s Variety on lower Congress Street has been in the Brichetto family since 1986. Sonny Brichetto has been proprietor of the store for the past six years. When asked his thoughts on the Sea Dogs and whether there are benefits to him, as a business owner, he offered the following.

“They don’t help my business,” said Brichetto. “A lot of people park right in front of the store and my customers can’t pull up. They can’t stop for milk or a six pack of beer. It hurts my business.”

Do fans stop in for food prior to the game or on the way back to their cars?

“A lot of the fans are older and they don’t spend money,” he said. “They leave the game, go to their cars, and drive off. One thing I did notice is the other night, during the high school playoff game; I had my best night in a long time. We did $150 of extra business because it was mostly high school kids and the concessions at the ballpark weren’t open.”

Around the corner from Hadlock, Dave and Alice Emery operate Emery Window Shade Company on St. John Street. Within the past couple of years, they’ve begun operating a small eatery and ice cream stand also out of the same building. When Dave Emery was asked how he viewed the Sea Dogs as a neighbor he had this to say.

“They take up all of your parking and they don’t give you any business,” said Emery. His wife Alice added, “People that live here come home from work and they have no place to park. Fans going to the games take their spaces on the street. We’ve had to call parking control several times because people were parked in one of our few spaces for customers.”

Reaping the benefits

The Sea Dogs are an unqualified business success. During each of the past 10 seasons, the team has made a profit, with obvious benefit to the ownership of the team. Indications are that the new affiliation with the Red Sox is sure to be even more lucrative for the team.

A casual glance around the confines of Hadlock Field illustrates the success of the team’s advertising program. With billboards plastered on the outfield wall, and signage displayed prominently throughout the entire ballpark, it is clear that the team is receiving ample support from the local business community. Businesses also cash in from their affiliation with the Sea Dogs.

For a business like Sullivan Tire, there are obvious benefits from the advertising they do via baseball and the Sea Dogs. Paul Sullivan, owner of Sullivan Tire recognizes that baseball advertising works for his business.

The company advertises with the Sea Dogs, as well as other New England professional teams, including the Boston Red Sox. Sullivan, articulate and possessing a keen understanding of communication and the connection between baseball, tradition, and the role these play in advertising, spoke passionately about why he chooses to advertise with professional teams like the Sea Dogs.

“Sullivan Tire began in a barn in Rockland, Massachusetts in 1955—this is our 49th year in business,” said Sullivan. “In 1978, we decided to use baseball as a stage to reach the New England baseball audience. We recognized that baseball as a vehicle crossed barriers of age, demographics, gender and racial makeup like no other opportunity. We know that New Englanders love baseball and as a result, we’ve committed a good portion of our communications budget towards baseball advertising.”

Reaching a conclusion

Is there economic benefit to the city of Portland from professional baseball? To those residents and businesses in the neighborhood around Hadlock, the benefit is negligible at best and the inconveniences of game days may negate any.

The city benefits from the image that they’ve been able to create by piggy-backing on the Sea Dogs. Many people looking to relocate to Portland obviously find entertainment options like the Sea Dogs attractive. An argument can be made that fans coming to Hadlock spend additional money in Portland, if not in the immediate vicinity of the field, then in other parts of the city. The capital improvements made to Hadlock have certainly improved the overall value of the park.

As far as the Sea Dogs organization is concerned, they are only doing what any profitable business does—maximizing assets while minimizing liabilities—for that, it is impossible to fault them as a business. They also provide some outreach to the community through a variety of service programs.

Yet, there are nagging questions about the entire relationship between the City and the Sea Dogs. There are obvious issues that should be addressed between the Sea Dogs and nearby businesses. While trying to be a good neighbor by offering perks such as complimentary tickets to those in the neighborhood is commendable and an obvious good faith gesture, it is obvious that more could be done to try to deal with some of the problem areas, particularly in regards to parking and the inconveniences caused by game days.

Increasing concerns about property taxes, school funding issues, and the possible loss of needed services throughout the city beg the question whether Portlanders want to continue to subsidize a profitable local business like the Sea Dogs without any hard numbers to indicating actual economic benefits to the people of the city.

The Sea Dogs organization should look for ways to cultivate partnerships with local amateur leagues in the city. Rather than seeking to be the only game in town, the team should recognize that amateur baseball was alive and well in Portland before the team arrived and do more to support and promote the health of those leagues. By encouraging more people to play the game at the local level, the Sea Dogs are investing in their long-term success by creating lifelong fans for the sport of baseball.

Portlanders should also be willing to ask the hard questions and demand that their elected leaders take a look at ways to improve the current financial relationship between the Sea Dogs and the City. One improvement might be a renegotiation of the lease agreement, making it more favorable for all residents of the city.

With the Sea Dogs set to cash in on their lucrative affiliation with the Red Sox, residents who live, work, and pay taxes in Portland should be getting quantifiable benefits from this relationship.

Author's note:

It's been nearly two years since I wrote, "In Hadlock's Shadow," and in that time, not one journalist has bothered to look at any of the issues or concerns that I raised. The assumption continues to be that a professional baseball team, privately owned, but subsidized with public dollars, isn't an area for concern, or worthy of something other than a "rubber-stamped" approval. Professional sports, despite rocketing salaries, franchises that continue to appreciate and sweetheart deals in city after city across the country building ballparks and arenas that benefit private business interests, rather than tax-paying citizens, continues to receive little, if any, journalistic scrutiny.

Our own state of Maine continues to lack a statewide journalistic vehicle that reports on similar issues that affect the citizens of the state. Rarely do the state's daily newspapers tackle investigative journalism any longer, particularly if it must go toe-to-toe with business, or wealthy ownership, like the Sea Dog's owner, Dan Burke. Instead, we are treated to a continual torrent of fluff pieces and news-lite in daily doses.

I have little hope that my article will make much of a difference regarding professional baseball. However, I know that I wrote an honest piece that looked at issues that should matter to the people of Portland and to citizens beyond Maine's largest city. It's a template for other writers who might want to look at other similar issues, particularly at a time when tax dollars are being stretched tightly and often come up short in meeting many essential services in communities across the Pine Tree State.

Lastly, another city in Maine, Lewiston, has invested substantial public monies into the refurbishing of a historic arena. This was done to attract a professional hockey team, the Lewiston Mainiacs, to the city. While the improvements to the building have transformed a former eyesore, I've yet to read one article that questions any aspects of this project. Interestingly, at least one local business seems to have benefitted substantially from the renovations and their relationship with the Mainiacs.

But the issue remains, even if someone wanted to investigate this issue in Lewiston, concerning professional hockey and whether the city's involvement is reaping economic benefits for all citizens, what publication would be willing to stand behind it? I doubt the Lewiston Sun Journal would tackle this. Based on their track record with the Sea Dogs, I have reservations that Mainebiz would print any type of expose.

As I've written before, without a statewide publication the likes of the former Maine Times, there is no publication that is willing, or courageous enough, to publish the kind of articles that true journalism calls for. As a result, the light of truth is diminished and Mainers are poorer because of this.

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