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If Amarillo builds it, will they come?

By   /   March 2, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

Courtesy of Amarillo

This is an artist’s rendering of a proposed minor league baseball stadium in Amarillo.

Amarillo city officials have clearly watched “Field of Dreams” once too often.

“If you build it, they will come” may be one of the most memorable lines in cinema (even if it is a misquote), but Amarillo is taking the advice literally, as an economic development strategy.

Taxpayers could be shelling out upwards of $70 million to build a minor league baseball stadium, but the city hasn’t lined up a deal with any actual minor league club.

The plan, such as it is, amounts to maybe a Triple-A team from Colorado will move to San Antonio, and maybe then the Double-A San Antonio Missions would be interested in moving from a major market to the sparsely populated Panhandle.

There have been news reports on such a possibility, but the source for those reports is a consultant named Rich Neumann, whose company has a $57,000 contract to consult for the city on the stadium deal.

The general manager of the Pacific Coast League’s Colorado Springs Sky Sox has dismissed the reports as “speculation and rumor.” The president of the Texas League, Tom Kayser, has said that “the Missions are not moving anywhere,” and said Neumann wasn’t speaking for the team or the league.

Courtesy of Amarillo

An aerial view of an artist’s rendering of a baseball stadium in downtown Amarillo.

The foundation for the dubious stadium project was an even more dubious land swap. In order to clear three and a half blocks of downtown land for the stadium — land occupied by Coca-Cola for more than a century — officials built the company a $9.1 million distribution plant on 10 acres of land, all free, and threw in a 10-year property tax abatement worth almost $1 million.

As of now, the only baseball club interested in occupying and operating the stadium would be better described as a half-club. The Amarillo Thunderheads, who are unaffiliated with any major league team, play baseball in front of 1,000-fan crowds for $5 a pop as a purely commercial proposition.

That business hasn’t gone so well, so the club sold off most of its players after last year and merged with the Grand Prairie AirHogs for this season. The combined club will split its home games between the county stadium on the outskirts of Amarillo and the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, six hours away.

The proposed Amarillo stadium is part of a downtown redevelopment project that will see the city build and own a 225-room “convention hotel,” to jumpstart a theoretical convention business (Potential marketing slogan: “What happens in Amarillo, stays … aw, who are we kidding? Nothing happens in Amarillo.”).

The city projected construction costs of $69.3 million for the hotel, $30.3 million for the baseball stadium, and $13.4 million for a parking garage, plus $6.4 million for demolition and prep work.

In a non-binding referendum in November, voters narrowly favored that plan, which called for a 4,000-seat stadium suitable for the Thunderheads. However, officials are now talking about a 6,000-seat stadium for a Double-A team that could cost $50 million or more. The Amarillo Local Governance Corporation is set to review construction and operating cost estimates later this month.

Critics contend that aside from the crony capitalism at work, the deal is illegal because officials ignored state law requiring a popular vote on using sales tax revenue for stadium deals.

“This is an obvious and blatant circumvention of the law,” Amarillo resident Michael Ford wrote to the city.

Local residents pay a half-cent sales tax collected by the Amarillo Economic Development Corporation, which is supposed to be used for incentives and subsidies given to companies to create or retain jobs.

There are two types of EDCs in Texas – Type A and Type B – and Amarillo is a Type A. The main difference between them is that a Type B may use its money for stadium deals, while a Type A has to go to the public to get approval to build a stadium.

The city has not put any part of the deal up for public approval in a binding vote, yet officials contend they structured the deal in a way that made public approval unnecessary. The EDC built Coca-Cola its new plant directly, but Coca-Cola transferred its old property directly to the city, rather than to the EDC. (If the property had gone into the EDC’s hands, a vote clearly would have been required, both sides agree.)

The EDC has taken the official position that the primary purpose of its giveaway was to retain jobs at the Coca-Cola plant, but Ford scoffs at the assertion.

“None of the public testimony of the City Council, AEDC staff or (Coca-Cola) representatives indicated that job retention was ever a motivation for taking on the … project,” Ford writes. In fact, he points out, it’s public record that the city chose the Coca-Cola location rather than another potential stadium site owned by at least seven different parties, in part because of the ease of negotiating with just one party.

Courtesy of Amarillo

Another view of the artist’s rendering of a baseball stadium in downtown Amarillo.

Even if the EDC were sincere in saying that the deal was all about keeping jobs in town, the deal still wouldn’t comply with legal requirements, Ford wrote to the city. The law requires that the jobs be in producing goods and services that are “ultimately exported to regional, statewide, national, or international markets, infusing new dollars into the local economy.” But the Coca-Cola facility is a distribution plant, receiving products manufactured elsewhere for local use.

In a Nov. 24, 2015, memo, interim city attorney Mick McKamie said that because the city received the land for the stadium free of any strings, it’s not technically a stadium project financed by economic development money. Although the public and city officials all understood what the land was intended for and discussed it publicly, the “public discussion about the (stadium) had no legal impact on the City’s actual authority to use the land as it wishes,” McKamie wrote.

Also, “if there was any possible impropriety or illegality in the course” of the deal, the lawyers would have said so, McKanie writes. Since they didn’t, then the conclusion of his circular logic is that there was nothing illegal or improper about the deal.

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It’s still far from clear that there’s enough local interest in minor league baseball to support a club. With fewer than 200,000 people, Amarillo is the 14th largest city in Texas, and the 131st largest television market in the country.

The difference between Amarillo and cities that currently have Double-A teams is that the latter are mostly in larger metropolitan areas, with suburban and exurban populations that drive or take public transportation to the games. While the city of Amarillo looks like a place that could be home to minor league baseball, the surrounding area does not.

A 2010 study by Conventions, Sports & Leisure International found that Amarillo was too small to support a team, and that it’s remote location would discourage teams from relocating there.

“Focusing on the two affiliated minor league classifications that operate within Amarillo’s region of the United States, Class AAA markets have an average population of approximately 1.4 million people, while Class AA markets have an average population of approximately 994,000,” the study said. “The Amarillo CBSA population of 250,815 would rank lowest among Class AAA markets and among the lowest Class AA markets.”

But last month, Neumann’s firm, Brailsford & Dunlavey, submitted a much more favorable report, based on 30-minute drive times instead of hour drive times. Amarillo ranks better if you simply cut the sprawling populations of other cities out of the picture.

In other words, if you build it, they will come — if they don’t have to drive too far.

Contact Jon Cassidy at [email protected] or @jpcassidy000.


Jon Cassidy is the Houston-based reporter for Watchdog.org. He worked for six years as a reporter and editor for The Orange County Register after beginning his career at The Hill, broken up by a few years in South America working as a translator and English teacher. His work has been published by the Wall Street Journal, Fox News, City Journal, The American Spectator, Reason, The Federalist, Human Events, the Dallas Morning News, the San Antonio Express-News, and other publications. He was awarded the 2014 Robert Novak Journalism Fellowship. He is best known for his work in bringing to light a far-reaching admissions scandal at The University of Texas. You can reach him at [email protected]