Sarno Says a Baseball Deal Would Have to Make Sense for the City

Covering His Bases

Springfield’s Vision 2017

Springfield’s Vision 2017 presentation offered the Republican property as one possible site for a ballpark. City leaders say there are several options.

As he discussed the current talks concerning the possibility of minor league baseball coming to the City of Homes, Mayor Domenic Sarno spent a good deal of time referencing the last time this matter came to the table.

That was a rather extended period, actually, from the mid ’90s into the start of this century, when several proposals were floated for a ballpark that would be built on sites ranging from the city’s North End, to the riverfront, to the Chicopee River Business Park. And that go-around, if one chooses to call it that, is much different from this one, said the mayor.

For starters, he said, back in the ’90s, baseball and the stadium in which it would be played were talked about in terms of being a major economic development initiative, a ‘build-it-and-they-will-come’ proposition, where the city would build a park and then essentially lure a team to play in it.

This time around, things are much different, said both Sarno and Kevin Kennedy, the city’s chief development officer. In the current environment, baseball would be a piece of the puzzle — not the piece, they said.

“This is part of the economic development equation, the vision that we have,” said the mayor. “It fits right in with the momentum we’re enjoying right now.”

Meanwhile, instead of having a hypothetical team as the focus of the discussions, the current talks involve the Triple A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox.

That team, which has played in Pawtucket for decades, and is known affectionately as the PawSox, is looking for a new home, a search that began in earnest in Providence, but will not end there, apparently, after negotiations concerning a site adjacent to the Providence River were terminated amid a host of obstacles.

Now, several other cities are supposedly in the mix, with Springfield being one of them.

The changed climate involving the current discussions is apparent in the way both Sarno and Kennedy address the matter. Early and often they said the city would pursue the team “only if makes sense for the city,” and vowed that they wouldn’t get into anything approaching a bidding war with Worcester, Fall River, or any of the other cities rumored to also be in some form of contention for the team.

“To have the home town, home state Triple A Boston Red Sox affiliate in Springfield would be a home run,” Sarno noted. “But it’s got to be done smart, it has to be done with community input, it has to be done in partnership with the business community … done the right way, it could be a huge benefit.”

Indeed, Sarno and Kennedy both said this matter is certainly worth an investment in time and energy on the part of the city, primarily because some of the officials with the Red Sox organization have expressed interest in the city, and also because bringing the PawSox to the city makes sense for both parties involved.

As noted, Springfield officials would get another building block to go along with MGM’s casino, a new factory to build subway cars, Union Station’s revitalization, and new entrepreneurial energy downtown, in its efforts to stage a complete revitalization, Sarno said. Meanwhile, the Red Sox would be locating their Triple A affiliate in a city with a number of other entertainment options (either already existing or planned) and in a market with easily accessible to people across the state, but also Connecticut, Vermont, and eastern New York State.

“We’re going to be very methodical about this,” the mayor stressed. “We’re going to look at the numbers, we’re going to look at the private investment; if it makes sense, we’ll pursue it. If it doesn’t, again, it’s just one piece of the puzzle.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Sarno and Kennedy about the prospects for baseball, and how this bid is much different than the failed adventure of 15 years ago.

Stepping up to the Plate

Sarno said the current baseball talks started — or at least gained some traction — at a recent awards ceremony in Boston known as the Globies, named after the newspaper the stages them, the Boston Globe.

The mayor was in attendance to accept an honor on behalf of Springfield — ‘best comeback city’ — and during the early stages of the ceremony he was approached by Sam Kennedy, the recently named president of the Red Sox, who has some ties to the City of Homes.

“He said, ‘Larry would like to speak with you guys,’” said Sarno, adding that this was a reference to Larry Luccino, Kennedy’s predecessor as president of the Red Sox and managing partner of the PawSox.

Sarno noted that he did eventually get to speak with Luccino. It wasn’t a long conversation, but the latter got across the message that he wanted Springfield to become part of the mix when it came to finding a new home for his team.

How Luccino, who has scripted some intriguing stories of ballpark construction in urban settings — Camden Yards in Baltimore and Petco park in San Diego, most notably — became interested in Springfield is not known, but Sarno believes it has a lot to do with why he was at the Globies to begin with.

He said the city is staging a noteworthy comeback, and MGM’s plans to build an $800 million casino in its South End have put the community on many radar screens that would not have picked it up years ago.

“MGM has put us on the map,” said Sarno adding that the casino initiative has already created new opportunities — he credits the project as being a big motivating factor in the decision of Falvey Linen Supply to relocate to Brookdale Drive — and could help inspire many others.

What becomes of this baseball opportunity is a function of economics and practicality, said the mayor, again noting that any deal “must make sense for the city.”

The starting point will be what is usually is in such matters, said Kennedy, referring to a planned feasibility study that will examine where a stadium could go, how it would be financed, and whether the numbers do indeed make sense.

“We need to look at the economics of this in terms of potential sites, and we need to know all there is know about the whole baseball business in terms of the size of the stadium and everything else” he said, adding that the city is asking the business community to step to the plate, figuratively, and underwrite some or all of the cost of the study.

As for possible locations for an 11,000-seat stadium required to host the team, Kennedy said that several could eventually emerge.

At his department’s now annual presentation last spring on development initiatives, this year called Vision 2017, Kennedy presented a number of images representing possible future developments. One of them was a baseball stadium on the site of the Republican newspaper’s complex on Main Street just past the Arch.

While that would be a very expensive option for the PawSox, there are many other potential sites, he said, especially in the area near Union Station and what has come to be the “blast zone,” site of the 2012 natural gas explosion.

A baseball stadium in the North End and a casino in the South End could create opportunities for not only those areas, but the real estate in between, said the mayor, adding that the two entertainment entities, as well as others already in place, such as the AHL’s Falcons, will likely create a steady flow of pedestrians in downtown.

“Getting that pedestrian traffic, thousands of people going back and forth — having an anchor like the stadium in the North End and the casino in the South End opens up myriad possibilities,” Sarno noted.

A Potential Hit

As he talked with BusinessWest about the PawSox and the possibility of them coming to Springfield, Sarno introduced some history lessons.

He related how his father, who was one of nine barbers doing business in downtown Springfield when the city last had a minor league team — an affiliate of the San Francisco Giants — in the ’60s, still tells stories about the players he saw.

“He would talk about Billy Ray Hart, the Alou brothers, Juan Marichal — they would all come in, and it was a glorious time,” he said, adding quickly that this latest pursuit of baseball has nothing to do with nostalgia or creating memories for future generations.

Well, it’s not all about those things. In reality, it’s about building on current momentum by adding another important piece to the revitalization puzzle — if it works.

“We’re going to be very methodical,” Sarno said again. “I think people know we’re open for business and they like that, but we’re also very succinct in making sure that we cross the ‘t’s and dot the ‘i’s.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

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