Photo: Cliff_Baise | Flickr
20 years ago, the Baltimore Orioles did something that at the time ran counter to every trend in stadium construction: They built their new ballpark right in the heart of downtown Baltimore.That not only proved beneficial to the Orioles, who continue to draw crowds to their gorgeous ballpark (despite years of putting losing teams on the field), but also to Baltimore businesses, who got a boost from the revitalization that Camden Yards at Oriole Park helped spark.
With Opening Day around the corner — April 4 is Opening Night in St. Louis, and on April 5 teams all over the country will take to the field — small businesses in Baltimore and other big league cities eagerly await the arrival of their teams from spring training, drawing hordes to the area.
“A downtown stadium like Camden Yards can have great synergies with downtown businesses and institutions and residents, and that has certainly proved to be the case with Camden Yards,” said Ronald Kreitner, executive director of the WestSide Renaissance in Baltimore, a consortium of local businesses. (Orioles owner Peter Angelos is a member.) “In many respects the synergy has exceeded some of our expectations.”
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The Orioles’ success with Camden Yards spawned other downtown stadiums in Cleveland, San Francisco, Denver and elsewhere. Teams have found the synergy with downtown works in their favour as well.
For instance, in San Francisco, AT&T [T] Park draws fans to a once industrial area now surrounded by shops, restaurants, and the latest outpost of Lucky Strike, a hip new chain of bowling alleys — or as they prefer to call themselves, a “gastro pub fun house.” Adding to Lucky Strike’s appeal in San Francisco: One of the owners of the local franchise is star Giants reliever Brian Wilson.
Lucky Strike will play up the connection, renaming its 12th lane as “Lane 38,” in honour of Wilson’s uniform number, and painting the pins in that lane Giants orange.
“We’ve got a fair amount of history in these kind of parks,” said Steven Foster, Lucky Strike founder and CEO, who opened his first venue a stone’s throw from Fenway Park, and who also has outlets near Chase Field in Phoenix, home of the Arizona Diamondbacks, and near the Staples centre in Los Angeles (home to the NBA’s Lakers). “They’re great. You’ve got to be able to have a strong enough concept that has destination appeal when there aren’t home games, but when there are, it’s great to be here.”
But While Foster opens his outlets to take advantage of the ballparks’ crowds, plenty of other businesses that were established before the parks were built have adapted to the rush of traffic that game day brings.
“Small businesses, restaurants, bars, parking — all of these things have been able to reap the benefit of the patronage of the stadium as a part of the mix of being downtown, Baltimore’s Kreitner said. “It’s providing a leg of the stool that supports small business and enterprise… It means full tables, full parking, shops that can benefit from the traffic going by.”
One of the occasional beneficiaries is Hippodrome Hatters, a men’s hat shop in the neighbourhood. While the ballpark sometimes scares off local customers because of the challenge of finding parking on game day, owner Lou Boulmetis says tourists and other baseball fans often discover his shop while on their way to the yard. “It’s six of one and a half-dozen of the other,” Boulmetis says. “My favourite fans are New York fans and Boston fans who come and patronize me. I know some of them on a first name basis.”
Boulmetis’ affinity for the Yankee and Red Sox invaders might not win him too many points with the Orioles’ orange-and-black-clad faithful, but he shrugs it off. “Money is green,” he says. And because parking is so pivotal to his success, the Oriole fans’ dream is Boulmetis’ nightmare: Baltimore in the World Series. “If the Orioles are in the playoffs, if that ever happens, that’ll hurt business,” he says. “There’ll be no parking places.”
But until that happens, Baltimore shop owners will enjoy the boost in foot traffic that game day brings.
“Our owner, Peter Angelos, cared very much about downtown and having the ballpark be a part of the life of the city, ensuring that downtown continues to be transformed,” said Janet Marie Smith, the Orioles’ vice president of planning and development. “Sometimes you hear baseball teams fretting, ‘What if people go to those restaurants instead of coming here?’ Our feeling is, a rising tide lifts all ships. When it comes time to have fun in an urban environment, more is more.”
In a case of what Smith said was “art imitating life, and life imitating art,” the Orioles developed their ballpark around a stretch of Eutaw Street that they hoped could become as vibrant on game days as Yawkey Way, which borders Fenway Park in Boston. After helping get Camden Yards built, Smith and her boss, Larry Lucchino, went to work in Boston, where they helped the Red Sox strike a deal with the city to give them control over Yawkey Way.
“Fenway was mimicking Baltimore which was mimicking Fenway,” Smith says. “I’m a big believer in stealing your own ideas.”
Not everyone wins in these deals. In New York, when the Yankees opened their new stadium in 2009, many longtime business owners were either displaced, or found themselves competing with the Yankees, whose new ballpark — located next to the old stadium in the Bronx — featured many more restaurants and shops. And according to a story in the Boston Globe last year by reporters from the Initiative for Investigative Reporting at Northeastern University, the Red Sox “increased their revenue by an estimated $45 million through the use of two streets that city officials handed over for a relative pittance: an average of $186,000 a year in lease fees.”
But the salutary effects of a big draw do seem to create opportunities that entrepreneurs can cash in on.
The changes a new ballpark can bring came home to Baltimore’s Kreitner about five years ago, when he stood out on Eutaw Street one night when the Yankees were in town and “The Lion King” was playing at the Hippodrome theatre down the street. “It gave the feeling of being in New York City,” he says. “People were walking everywhere. Restaurants were filled. Parking lots were filled. It was a very positive feeling for a central environment.”
“If you could go back 25 years and stand in the same spot,” he said, “you would not have seen people on the street, period, in the evening.”
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