Dollars will fly south to D.C., businesses fear

Money: Opinion is split over how much entertainment spending a Washington baseball team will divert from Baltimore.

Economic Impact

September 30, 2004|By Jamie Smith Hopkins and Bill Atkinson | Jamie Smith Hopkins and Bill Atkinson,SUN STAFF

ECONOMIC IMPACT They start pouring in at 5:30 in the evening, eager for a beer, a burger and a seat in view of the glowing stadium across the street. Max's Taphouse is booming.

It must be game night at Oriole Park.

Baseball is the lifeblood of the West Pratt Street bar in the shadow of Camden Yards. Owner Ron Furman figures the sport accounts for 70 percent of his business there.

"We need another major league team like we need a hole in the head," he said.

Economists debate whether stadiums are truly economic engines. Many argue that they're not worth all the public money spent on them, that they merely redistribute discretionary dollars people would spend on other forms of recreation and entertainment such as going to the movies, that the boost might be emotional and cultural but not financially quantifiable.

Yet certain businesses insist they get an undeniable bottom-line bounce from home Orioles games. They fear the impact of a new baseball team 40 miles to the south. Nearly 35,000 fans come to each of the 81 home games, and almost a quarter of them hail from the Washington region, the Orioles and D.C. baseball advocates agree.

"It's a disaster for the city," developer David Cordish said of the addition of a second major league baseball team in the region. His Power Plant Live entertainment complex is one of the destinations that benefit from baseball. "That's a lot of people ... who won't be wandering around downtown."

He's among those perplexed that Baltimore's business and political leaders didn't field much of a defense, leaving Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos to stand virtually alone against the move of the Montreal Expos to Washington.

No one coordinated letter-writing campaigns to push Major League Baseball toward other communities in the running, such as the comfortably distant Puerto Rico or Las Vegas. The local chamber of commerce took no position.

A City Council resolution opposing baseball in Washington had too little support to make it to a vote this week. Mayor Martin O'Malley even raised some eyebrows by saying the nation's pastime in the nation's capital was all right with him.

The muted response from businesses has a mixed bag of reasons: Some proprietors are uncomfortable trying to keep baseball out of Washington after years of feeling blacklisted by football. Others hope a nearby team will force Angelos to improve his product after seven straight losing seasons.

Some companies expect to capitalize on opportunities that another team in the region would provide. And many others just don't expect to feel a pinch.

The Maryland Retailers Association, for instance, doubts the impact on merchandisers will ripple much beyond the hawkers who cluster around the stadium.

"What's the harm of a little healthy competition?" asked Francel M. Smith, chairman of the Baltimore City Chamber of Commerce and an employee benefits consultant. "I wish that I was the only game in town, but it doesn't work that way."

Years of lackluster performance, he and some others believe, have already shrunk the Orioles' economic ripples.

In 1992, the year that the 48,000-seat Camden Yards opened to regular sellouts, the Orioles contributed $15.8 million in state and local taxes and employed more than 2,300 people, according to the state Department of Business and Economic Development.

That has slipped to about $14 million and employment is down 20 percent, estimated Anirban Basu, chief executive of Sage Policy Group, a local economic and policy consulting firm.

Even so, the Orioles have an obvious effect on downtown Baltimore, according to merchants and others in the city's tourist district. The National Aquarium sees a jump of 6 percent to 8 percent in attendance any day there's a game in town. Cars pack into parking garages. Conway Street teems with people.

Some argue that the impact of a team in Washington won't be significant because Orioles fans - and foes - will continue to come to Camden Yards. Mary Ann Cricchio, president of the Little Italy Restaurant Association and owner of Da Mimmo, has found that the impact of New York fans visiting when the Orioles play the rival Yankees is particularly critical.

Economist Dennis Coates thinks that Washington fans - close enough to pop in without a hotel stay - aren't doing much for Baltimore businesses outside of the Orioles anyway. They rarely have time to burn at the bars and eateries before and after because of their long drive from the D.C. area, said Coates, a professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

But you won't be able to convince Max's owner Furman of that. Even Tuesday night, when rain poured down and canceled the scheduled game, the hardy souls who showed up included two men who work in Bowie.

"I've been born and bred an Orioles fan, so I'll probably stay an Orioles fan," declared Ryan Elliott, 31, lifting his voice above the din of rock music as light from five television screens tuned to a variety of sports channels danced behind him.

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