THE ROLLING, tree-laden land in Harford County, hidden from major roads, is not where a developer would usually want to build a substantial complex of shops, restaurants and movie screens.
But what is in view sealed the deal: Ripken Baseball's minor-league stadium and youth fields, which draw 300,000 people a year to games, camps and the nationally televised Cal Ripken World Series. The facility in Aberdeen will soon include a 198-room hotel.
Nearby, Havre de Grace is getting a similar benefit as developers prepare land for offices and about 2,000 homes around Bulle Rock, a 6-year-old golf course that quickly gained a reputation as one of the best public facilities in the nation. Tens of thousands of visitors are expected to descend on the quaint Susquehanna River town when the LPGA Championship comes to the course next June for the first of five annual tournaments.
Affordable land and proximity to Interstate 95 have driven economic growth in Harford for a generation, from corporate warehouses to housing. Technology spinoffs from the sprawling Aberdeen Proving Ground have been a more recent boon. But economic development driven by sports is a newer twist, or at least a modern variation for a once-rural county that drew visitors, even presidents, for duck hunting or horse racing.
"We've become a destination - a sports destination - in a very short period of time," said J. Thomas Sadowski, Harford's director of economic development.
Cities across the country have long tried to put sports to work for them economically, with mixed results.
Among the most successful at it is Indianapolis, with its famous motor speedway, major facilities for basketball, cycling, soccer and swimming and a bevy of sports organization headquarters.
Lancaster, Calif., north of Los Angeles, uses soccer and softball complexes as a draw for amateur competitions. And Cooperstown, N.Y., population 2,000, has cultivated a boys-of-summer economy. Along with its renowned National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, a 10,000-seat sports stadium is booked daily from April through October, and a separate cluster of ball fields draws teams from across the country for tournaments.
"It is fueling our economy tremendously," said Polly Renckens, executive director of the Cooperstown Chamber of Commerce.
Academics argue that typical sports complexes aren't nearly the boost expected by politicians, who are often eager for teams - minor or major league - and are willing to spend millions of dollars in public money to build facilities to lure them. Games usually don't bring new cash to an area because they're not pulling people from far enough away, economists say.
Economist Brad Humphreys has studied the bottom-line impact of sports for about five years and has found it to be largely wishful thinking. He suspects that Aberdeen's 2-year-old Ripken Stadium might be an unusual case, however, because it's "more akin to a convention center than a sports stadium" - used for everything from concerts to trade shows to youth baseball championships.
"I think people have figured out that a sports facility by itself has limitations," said Dennis Howard, a professor with the University of Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center.
The Cal Ripken World Series, which began this weekend and concludes next Sunday, draws nearly 6,000 spectators to see top 12-year-olds from the United States, South Korea, Canada, Australia, the Dominican Republic and Mexico.
"You're truly attracting people who might not have gone to Aberdeen absent those sorts of events," said Humphreys, who recently left the University of Maryland, Baltimore County for the University of Illinoism Urbana-Champaign. "Now it's easier to make a case that there's some economic benefit to that."
Nottingham Properties Inc., which developed the large mixed-use community of White Marsh in northeastern Baltimore County, is excited about the possibilities for land near the IronBirds' stadium.
It has agreed to buy about 45 acres from the city of Aberdeen for a mixed-use project that ties into its sports neighbor. The company is planning a 190,000-square-foot retail and entertainment complex with a sports theme, along with 168 luxury condominiums.
Chuck McMahon, who's handling the commercial side of the project, appreciates that Interstate 95 is nearby, that the corridor is growing and that it has a "draw" in place. The Aberdeen IronBirds minor-league team ranks second in attendance in its short-season A division. The stadium holds about 6,100, and games are always sold out.
"Without the stadium adjacent ... it probably wouldn't be able to be used for what we intend to use it for," said J. Joseph Credit, Nottingham's executive vice president and chief operating officer. "It is a unique site."
Others think so, too. The city is being sued by another development team that had hoped to buy the land. A Harford County Circuit Court judge will hear the case next month.