Baseball fans could enjoy a less-expensive night out at the ballpark if the City of Detroit would sell, or at least privatize, Tiger Stadium to a Tiger-associated minor league baseball club.
Editor’s Note: As MPR went to press, the city of Detroit
announced its intention to use stadium property for a housing development.
In a recent budget address to Detroit’s City Council, Mayor
Kwame Kilpatrick preached the virtues of selling city-owned property. "I am
pleased to inform you," exclaimed Kilpatrick, "that to date, we have sold or
have commitments to purchase $36 million in [city-owned] property. This year we
are developing whole new strategies, including bundling of properties as well as looking at the assets of city government that can be sold and placed back on the tax roles."
The state legislature should step in and protect taxpayers and private businesses from future losses and from unfair competition.
He’s right. The best thing the city of Detroit can do with
its massive hoard of property (more than 40,000 parcels at last count) is sell
it. The city could do even more to shed such assets. It could, for instance,
minimize hurdles to privatization by removing unnecessary and expensive
bureaucratic obstacles to acquisition. Case-in-point: Tiger Stadium.
For the past seven years, the city of Detroit has attempted
to find a bureaucratic answer to the question: "What to do with Tiger Stadium?"
Employees in the city’s Planning and Development Department were charged with
determining what constitutes a best use for the corner of Michigan and Trumbull
instead of simply selling the property to the highest bidder in an open, fair
auction and allowing the winner to do with the property as he pleases.
Regrettably, the city has paid the Detroit Tigers
organization more than $2 million to maintain the stadium over the past seven
years while "feasibility studies" have been conducted on what to do with the
asset. Failing to be persuaded that Tiger Stadium holds value, city planners
seem bent on tearing down the stadium before selling the land — if it is sold at
A lack of ideas, money or interested, capable developers is
certainly not Tiger Stadium’s problem. As a potential developer who met with
city officials, I can say that there was never any serious consideration given
to the proposals for an alternative use of the ball park.
The Navin Field Consortium (the group to which I belonged)
proposed converting Tiger Stadium to its original 1912 configuration when the
park opened as Navin Field. Our proposal was made privately to the Detroit
Tigers with the suggestion that they follow the latest major league trend by
locating one of their minor league affiliates nearby — in this case at the
corner of Michigan and Trumbull.
We explained that the New York Yankees have a minor league
team on nearby Staten Island and that the New York Mets have a team down the
road in Brooklyn. In professional hockey, the Philadelphia Flyers have their top
farm team located in their old arena adjacent to their new facility. Similarly,
the Cleveland Indians, Toronto Blue Jays and several other teams have minor
league affiliates within a short drive of the major league venue. For once, we
felt that the Tigers could be ahead of the curve instead of behind it.
From a sports marketing perspective, the possibilities are
endless: Cross-promotion and schedule coordination would assure that the two
teams complement one another; the Tigers would be the only franchise in Major
League history to preserve and utilize their former facility; Detroit would be
preserving an internationally recognized baseball landmark; profits from the
minor league operations could serve to bolster the major league team’s
competitiveness; and the Tigers could reconnect with disenfranchised fans who
lost interest in the team when they moved out of Tiger Stadium.
The consortium also proposed that the stadium be privately
financed without subsidies from the city of Detroit or the Detroit Tigers. The
only expense would be a market rate for rent, no different than the rent the
Tigers pay to house their minor league team in a city like Erie, Pennsylvania.
Because such a venue has the potential for multiple tenants,
including concerts and special events, it is widely believed that the site could
become a real money-maker. Cooperation from the city and the team would
undoubtedly assure that raising capital would not be an issue. We also proposed
that the stadium be purchased from the city at a market rate or at auction.
The consortium included architects and builders who presented
detailed cost estimates for a partial demolition and reconstruction of the old
park. They determined that it would be less expensive to convert Tiger Stadium
to its original form than to build a new minor league ballpark.
Incidentally, metro-Detroit is the largest metropolitan area
with only one professional baseball team. It is only a matter of time before a
minor league team locates in the Detroit area. More than likely, an independent
league team will locate in a Detroit suburb, and the Tigers will have a
competitor instead of a partner.
Shortly after the Detroit Tigers departure in 1999,
developers made proposals to the city’s planners for alternate uses for Tiger
Stadium. One such party is McCormack Baron, a real estate development firm from
It didn’t take long before principals at McCormack Baron were
disenchanted with the way Detroit does business. In an April 2000 interview with
The Detroit News, the firm’s vice president, Jack Hambene, announced that he had
heard no response from the city in the eight months since his firm had submitted
The city’s reply? "We are not obligated to get back to
McCormack Baron," Sylvia Crawford, the Planning and Development Department’s
spokeswoman, told The News. "We are putting a contract together for a
predevelopment study. We are doing a study to see if it’s feasible to renovate
But city feasibility studies are unnecessary. Detroit could
privatize (that is, sell) Tiger Stadium by issuing a relatively simple
Invitation to Bid. An ITB is used by units of government primarily when it is
easy to define the service or asset being contracted or sold outright, and the
bids are almost always opened at a very public meeting.
The highest bidder for Tiger Stadium would win the land and
building, and do with the property as it saw fit: construct a Wal-Mart,
residential lofts, a parking lot, or use it as a sports stadium. The
possibilities are endless. Selling it in this fashion would constitute the
highest valued use of Tiger Stadium by the marketplace.
All too often politicians and their lieutenants view publicly
owned assets as pawns in power struggles. How city "jewels" are valued by
municipalities are often wildly different than how free people spending their
own resources would value them. But city-owned property does not exist to
advance the interests of a bureaucracy.
Selling Tiger Stadium would generate a one-time cash flow,
end subsidies for its annual maintenance and likely provide new property tax
revenue. In baseball vernacular, we’re talking a financial home run for the
Steven Thomas is the owner of Detroit Athletic Co., a
memorabilia store located just west of Tiger Stadium (www.detroitathletic.com).
He is also an adjunct scholar with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.