Building an Entrepreneurial Infrastructure

Minor League Baseball.

A decade or so ago, this simple phrase stirred nostalgia and hope among area residents. That was a time when several parties were working hard to bring baseball back to Springfield after a three-decade hiatus following the departure of the Springfield Giants, who once drew crowds to Pynchon Park.

These days, however, talk of minor league baseball stirs more cynicism and doubt than it does hope. That’s because Springfield badly botched its baseball project, leaving many with a bad taste in their mouths.

Indeed, former Springfield Mayor Michael Albano and his administration tried to force baseball down the throats of the city’s residents in an effort that never brought the city a team but did bring it some humiliation — and some costs it certainly didn’t need when one considers the community’s current fiscal plight.

We revisit this sad bit of local history, because minor league baseball, or the promise of it, is back in the news — this time in Holyoke.

An Ohio-based corporation, Mandalay Entertainment, which already owns five minor league teams, is considering moving one of them, currently located in Erie, Pa., to Holyoke and a site near the Holyoke Mall. The $110 million project has a number of facets beyond baseball, including office/retail space development, a hotel, a stadium, and even housing.

There are a number of pieces to this puzzle that have to fall in place for it to become reality — including everything from parcel assembly to infrastructure improvements to gaining league approval for moving one of its franchises.

As Holyoke moves into this process, we suggest that it try to learn from Springfield’s mistakes and not repeat them.

What were those mistakes?

Essentially, Springfield tried to force its project, in the name of economic development. The theory pushed forward was that minor league baseball would bring people to Springfield and its downtown, benefiting clubs, restaurants, and perhaps other tourist attractions and even retail. A stadium construction project would bring some temporary employment, backers said, while the facility would bring many seasonal and a few year-round jobs.

The Albano administration ventured forth without a clear mandate — or any mandate — from voters or business owners, and also without a workable site for a stadium. Still, the city pressed on, looking to squeeze a stadium onto a site in and around the North Gate Plaza in the city’s North End.

The exercise turned out to be a poster child for bad eminent domain proceedings — the city took several parcels and relocated some businesses for a stadium it never built — and left Springfield’s baseball plans in the dust, with little enthusiasm for revival.

Ultimately, Springfield’s endeavor failed because the city got ahead of itself and, as we said, it tried to force the issue.

Holyoke is in a somewhat different situation, but it can still learn from Springfield. The first lesson is to make sure the support is in place before moving forward, and to build alliances that will help see the project from drawing board to reality, rather than try to maneuver around people, as Springfield did.

The second lesson is to approach the project with the right attitude. There are plenty of studies out there that suggest that minor league baseball — and professional sports in general — does not provide the jobs or stir the related economic development that proponents say it does.

There are exceptions, obviously. Anyone who has ventured to the Fenway section of Boston and paid $50 to park for a Red Sox game knows that a sports team can bring opportunities to a city and individual entrepreneurs.

But in Holyoke, we’re talking about a relocation of the Erie SeaWolves. This franchise, which would play between 60 and 70 home games a year, is not going to change the economic fortunes of the city of Holyoke.

But it could be part of a larger economic development opportunity for the city — and it could also become another of a growing list of attractions that are luring visitors and conventioneers to the Pioneer Valley.

By playing it smart, as sports teams try to do, Holyoke might connect on this latest pitch for minor league baseball, and hit a home run for the region in the process.