The civic motto of Trenton, N.J.—TRENTON MAKES, THE WORLD TAKES—is displayed on a sign over the Delaware River. But for several decades manufacturing jobs have slapped town, and this city of almost 90,000 has been fibrillating with crime, drugs and unemployment. In search of an engine for urban renewal, the city took a swing at minor league baseball. In 1994 Trenton constructed an $18 million stadium that it leases to the Thunder, the Double A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. In two of four seasons the average attendance has exceeded the stadium's seating capacity of 6,341.
"The Thunder has been great for the area," says general manager Wayne Hodes. "Our average ticket is $6, but the comity estimates that each fan contributes $36 to the local economy. It's at the point now where Trenton will have a minor league hockey team in 1999 and is bidding for a CBA team, too."
In blighted towns such as Trenton that are desperate for economic nourishment, minor league teams are growing like Jack's beanstalk. New Jersey alone has six minor league baseball teams; as recently as 1993 the state had none. There are now seven independent leagues made up of teams unaffiliated with a parent club in the majors, so a city willing to fund stadium construction faces few barriers to entry.
"This was an outstanding opportunity for our community," says Joseph Ganim, the mayor of beleaguered Bridgeport, Conn., home to the Bluefish, a new franchise in the independent Atlantic League.
How outstanding is a matter of debate. While politicians and team owners trumpet minor league baseball as an economic panacea, others wonder if they are not modern-day Music Men, bilking vulnerable cities with illusory promises. "I liken it to Pascal's wager," says Robert Baade, an economist at Lake Forest (Ill.) College who specializes in sports financing. "Pascal in effect said he believed in God because he couldn't take a chance that He didn't exist. Well, communities believe in economic development through sports because they can't take a chance there isn't some. The evidence, though, clearly shows that sports aren't the tool for revitalization that boosters contend."
Why? For one thing, minor league teams have developed the same edifice complex as their major league counterparts. Taxpayer-financed stadiums are the norm these days, and teams that are lucky to gross $1 million a year are playing in state-of-the-art facilities, replete with skyboxes. Sioux City, Iowa, for instance, built a $3.5 million complex in 1993 that requires annual debt payments of about $400,000. The baseball tenant, the Explorers, expects to return roughly $125,000 this season, leaving the city short by nearly $300,000.
There's also the question of how much ancillary commerce minor league teams bring to a city. Fans will part with only so many bucks to watch upstarts run out ground balls, and they may simply be transferring their entertainment dollar's from, say, the movie theater to the local team.
On the other hand the virtues of minor league baseball might transcend statistics and numbers. A successful team that builds civic pride may pay untold dividends in the future. "All I know is that my mother, who's no sports fan, is in the stands cheering like crazy for the Bluefish," says Ganim. "When I see that, I can't help but be optimistic about what this team will do for the community."