Baseball vision for faded York

Prospects: Leaders hope plans for a minor- league stadium will spark rebirth in a Pennsylvania factory town.

July 23, 1999|By TIMOTHY B. WHEELER | TIMOTHY B. WHEELER,SUN STAFF

YORK, Pa. -- It takes a powerful imagination to see baseball fans streaming into this weedy, mostly vacant industrial lot on the edge of downtown York.

Eight big blue grain silos stand where left-center field ought to be. The Keystone Color Works, an aging pigment plant, sits along the first-base line.

But if everything falls into place in the next several weeks, city officials and local business leaders hope to lure a minor-league ballclub to York -- and spark a renaissance in this faded factory town -- by building an 8,000-seat stadium.

"We're baseball-minded," says Mayor Charles H. Robertson, showing off the Louisville Slugger he keeps in his City Hall office. "People want to line up. They want to start buying tickets."

If they build it, stadium boosters say, hundreds of thousands of people will come downtown and -- it is hoped -- rediscover the charms of this historic, once-bustling city.

York's sports-centered dreams of urban revival are nourished by the city's close ties to Baltimore, an hour's drive south on Interstate 83. In an artist's rendering, the mostly brick ballpark that York hopes to build resembles a little Camden Yards.

Taking another page from Baltimore's experience, York officials have proposed financing the $24 million stadium project without spending a cent of the city taxpayers' money. Half of the funds would come from the state; the other half would be financed through bonds to be repaid from stadium revenues.

And if this field of dreams is realized, credit would largely be due to one man: two-term Mayor Robertson, a retired city policeman, inveterate hometown cheerleader and emulator of Baltimore's former Mayor William Donald Schaefer. Robertson's motto: "Do it!"

An Orioles affiliate?

It's not a pipe dream -- at least not the baseball part.

Maryland Baseball LP, owner of three minor-league Orioles franchises, has expressed an interest in putting a team in York by the spring of 2001. Speculation focuses on getting the AA Bowie Baysox, which would need a new home if the partnership succeeded in buying the AAA Orioles franchise now in Rochester, N.Y., and move it to Maryland.

The York business community has jumped on the baseball bandwagon, committing in just two weeks to pay for all 30 skyboxes planned in the stadium. Buoyed by such support, the city awarded a $1 million contract last week to a Delaware firm to design a retro-looking ballpark, intended to blend in with the historic buildings that dominate the downtown skyline.

Several obstacles remain, though, the most immediate one up I-83 in the state capital. The Harrisburg Senators, a Montreal Expos franchise, fear they would lose fans and revenue if York got a team. League rules give Harrisburg a virtual veto over York's baseball ambitions.

Maryland Baseball is negotiating with Harrisburg, reportedly offering about $3.5 million to help upgrade that city's stadium if York is allowed a team. Peter Kirk, Maryland Baseball's chief executive, did not return telephone calls this week but has reportedly set a July 31 deadline for closing the deal.

"The naming of the team, and of the stadium, is just waiting for the go-ahead," says Robertson.

Not everyone is waiting. Just down Beaver Street from the proposed stadium site, workers are completing an addition to the White Rose Bar and Grill. Chef Jim Cox says baseball didn't prompt the expansion. "But it didn't hurt," he adds with a grin.

"This is going to change the whole block," he predicts, and notes that many York baseball fans identify more with the Orioles than with the Philadelphia Phillies or Pittsburgh Pirates. "I was a Junior Oriole when I was this tall," Cox says, holding his hand hip-high.

A much-needed boost

Though economists say sports teams are not money generators for a city, many who work and live in York say a baseball stadium would provide a much-needed boost, if only psychologically.

"It'd be great," says Tyronna Fitts, 30, as she, her three daughters and a relative enjoy a makeshift picnic lunch on a downtown doorstep. "It would give us something to do."

Philip Sweigart, executive director of the York Redevelopment Authority, says the stadium is part of a long-term urban revitalization plan that is starting to show results.

"This is an exciting time," says Sweigart, who grew up in East York, outside the city. "There's a lot of things going on in York."

Indeed, the York metropolitan area is booming, in part because of its proximity to Baltimore.

Almost half the residents of some county townships -- such as Shrewsbury, Fawn and Peach Bottom -- commute to Baltimore County or the city. The number of Baltimore-area workers living in York County grew from 3,000 in 1970 to 17,000 in 1990, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, and that trend has continued for the past nine years. Many of the commuters are former Marylanders, drawn over the border by the lure of less-expensive land and housing.

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