Cities Hike Construction, Remodeling of Stadiums

Article excerpt

By Steven J. Viuker

N.Y. Times News Service

So maybe consumers are not buying a whole lot of cars. And, yes, businesses have cut back on firstass airline tickets and fourar lunches. But there is one area of conspicuous spending in these recessionary times: sports stadiums.

Domes, parks, yards and coliseums (few seem to be called stadiums or arenas anymore) are being built or remodeled across North America at a pace not seen in two decades.

Among the cities with new stadiums just opened or in the works are Atlanta, Baltimore, Cleveland, San Antonio and San Jose. In New York, Madison Square Garden recently underwent a facelift.

These stadiums are put together a lot differently than their elder counterparts. Many are being financed through partnerships of local governments, sports teams and private corporations. Sometimes money comes from lotteries, instead of the usual bond issues and tax increases.

They also have lots more luxurious corporate boxes and other amenities nestled inside. And several are being built in downtown business areas, not in the suburbs miles away.

The recent success of two downtown stadiums in particular, Camden Yards in Baltimore, which opened in April at a cost of $104.5 million, and the $500 million Skydome in Toronto, which opened in September 1989, have excited other cities.

"Toronto built Skydome," said Bill Dorsey, publisher of Skybox magazine, a sports business publication based in Cincinnati. "The Blue jays became winners and 3 million fans paid to see them. Suddenly, Toronto was on the major league map."

Especially in properous times, cities were happy to bear the all costs of construction and upkeep of stadiums. Small and mediumzed cities built ballparks to attract teams, seeking the bigty aura conferred by a majorague franchise.

Those expectations still often prevail, of course, though sometimes a field of dreams can turn into a house of nightmare. That seems to be the case with the Suncoast Dome in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Opened in January 1991 at a cost of $140 million, the Suncoast is usually dark, save for an occasional concert or hockey game. Debt has risen to $262 million from $116 million because the city has failed to get a major league franchise it thought the stadium would be sure to attract.

So far, Suncoast has been used mainly as a threat by teams like the Chicago White Sox and San Francisco Giants seeking new stadiums or more favorable treatment where they are.

Not so in Baltimore, where the Orioles had played in Memorial Stadium, in a residential suburb, since 1954.

"The move to Camden Yards has increased attendance and allowed the fans to enjoy the city," said Jon Miller, an announcer for Orioles and for the ESPN cable sports channel. "They'll arrive at the park, either by car or train, have dinner and then go to the game."

Cleveland is hoping to go Baltimore one better with its ambitious Gateway Project. The $362 million complex will have a 21,000-seat arena for basketball and musical shows and a 42,500-seat football stadium. Both are scheduled to open in 1994.

City officials say Gateway, a 50-50 publicivate venture, will be the linchpin for the revitalization of downtown Cleveland. The city managed to persuade the Gund brothers, owners of the basketball Cavaliers, to abandon suburban Richfield Coliseum, which they own, for the new downtown arena.

Even financially strapped cities no longer must concede losing a franchise.

"As with Baltimore, Cleveland and the new Georgia Dome," said Mitchell Ziets of Public Financial Management, a financial consulting firm based in Philadelphia, "new stadiums can be built largely with money from a dedicated revenue stream." That might take the form of a special lottery, equity from corporations or leases on luxury suites, in the place of bonds and taxes. …