Sunday, March 7, 2010

In Ramapo, NY, a $25 Million Present for Independent Baseball

In Ramapo, NY, a $25 Million Present for Independent Baseball

By Evan Weiner

March 8, 2010

(New York, N. Y.) -- Congratulations to Town Supervisor Christopher St. Lawrence in the New York City suburb of Ramapo, New York. Supervisor St. Lawrence has landed an independent league baseball team in the Can-Am League. All Supervisor St. Lawrence needs to do is commit $25 million over 30 years to build a 3,500-seat baseball park in Ramapo Woods and hope to find an owner for the venture.

If that happens, Ramapo will join a league that is more of a floating crap game than a stable organized entity. The league will start the 2010 season with six teams, Brockton, MA. Little Falls, NJ, Pittsfield, MA, Quebec City, QC, Augusta, NJ and Worcester, MA. The Worcester team played in Nashua, NH in 2009.

The CanAm League had eight teams in 2008, but Ottawa and Atlantic City folded after the season. This is a league with a long history of instability in the five years it has existed as teams in Elmira, NY, New Haven, CT., and Lynn, MA have also failed. The CanAm League has twice featured traveling teams called the Aces and the Grays. The Grays traveling squad was supposed to have played in Bangor, ME but the owners pulled out and the league took over to keep an even amount of teams. Unlike minor league baseball affiliated teams, the owners of independent baseball leagues have to pay the salaries of the rostered players, managers, coaches and athletic trainers which means money is extremely tight and sometimes runs out.

It is also a league with a salary cap and players live with host families. The CanAm League has had some players go onto Major League Baseball organizations with eight CanAm League players having their contracts sold to Major League organizations in 2009 and there are a number of CanAm League players in Major League Baseball spring training camps.

It is in this environment that Christopher St. Lawrence is wagering about $25 million so that his town can be a player in independent baseball.

St. Lawrence is jubilant about bring the first independent league baseball team to his town. He believes that the Ramapo Woods Stadium will break even and that the town will be able to pay off the debt on the money that is needed to build the facility.

The rose color glasses were still on when St. Lawrence talked about the economic impact of the team and the stadium in Ramapo. The reality is St. Lawrence is willing to buy a bill of goods but he doesn’t think so and that is the problem. The Ramapo stadium is rather small potatoes to use a Donald Trumpism when compared to the new football stadium in Indianapolis which is costing the city a lot of money that Indianapolis doesn’t have. Indianapolis budgeted a certain amount of funds for the upkeep of the new facility and figured wrong.

St. Lawrence ought to be more familiar with federal law when it comes to stadium and revenues when it comes back to paying down the debt. Only eight cents out of every dollar generated inside a facility built with public funding goes back to the public unless a very specific lease arrangement is worked out. Given the history of the CanAm League with just Brockton and Little Falls still in the league as this incarnation of the CanAm League begins season number six, it is very likely that the lease St. Lawrence signs with any owner will be a sweetheart deal.

If St. Lawrence is lucky, the team owner will use the franchise as a tax write off or as a toy and doesn’t care about losing dollars and will keep the team funded.

There are some other issues surrounding the stadium building that need to be called into question. There will be construction jobs, those are not permanent and those workers are not going to be paid any more money on this project that say building a factory. St. Lawrence also claims there will be 25 permanent jobs and about 75 part time jobs created because of the stadium and franchise.

St. Lawrence’s $25 million investment will create some job all right. Those 25 permanent positions if connected to the baseball team will be minimum wage positions, which probably will not have benefits and will be entry-level positions at best. The part time jobs will be parking lot vendors, concession workers and will be per diem positions. The New York Times did a story in 2009 about a Columbia University sports management student who swept floors in the Sussex team clubhouse. That will be more typical of the type of employment available with the Ramapo team and at the stadium. St. Lawrence would be better off funding a supermarket, which typically has four or five different shifts with full time workers, workers who live in the community and circulate their money in a community. That is a far better economic plan than building a stadium although there is an intrinsic value to having a team in the community of community pride, feeling good when the local guys win.

Those stadium-related jobs would not be economic engines.

St. Lawrence’s stadium will need more business than just an independent league baseball team which has the doors open for business just some 50 times in a 365 day calendar year. There are 315 other days where there is no business, so there is a suggestion that minor college programs, Rockland Community College, St. Thomas Aquinas and Dominican can use the facility along with some local amateur baseball programs. That is all fine and good but when you spend $25 million in a tough economic environment, you better have other planned usage of the facility year round.

St. Lawrence apparently thinks local cable TV and local radio will carry Ramapo games, which will bring money and interest into the team. There are community access station and there could be an Internet presence but there will be no regional cable TV network and there are three in the area, Madison Square Garden, the Yankee-Nets YES Network and the Mets-Time Warner-Comcast SNY but St. Lawrence should not hold his breath waiting for a cable deal from any of those three entities and the two radio stations in the area present unique challenges. One station has a Polish talk and cultural format; the other has a terrible signal and has just 83 watts of power at night.

The Ramapo stadium will have all of the requisites required in sports today, 25 luxury suites and fan “amenities” in a setting in the woods with the mountains in the background. It is not really about baseball no matter what St. Lawrence and his allies are selling. It is about ambience, about well to do customers buying luxury boxes or selling naming rights to a stadium even for independent league games. It is about being a player in pro sports.

Twenty-five million dollars is not a high price these days for a stadium but a small municipality like Ramapo can ill afford the price tag when the entire economic picture is fully painted. New York State is going to cut back funding to all municipalities in the state and somewhere, somehow, taxes will be going up in Ramapo or services will be cut back. But Ramapo has the $25 million and St. Lawrence wants independent baseball and that is what Ramapo might get in 2011.

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