News

FIELD OF SCHEMES

Mayor Paul Johnson thinks he may have found a new way to keep spring training alive in the Valley while enabling Phoenix to score its own major league baseball team--all with one swing of the fiscal bat.

While the Arizona State Legislature ponders a proposal to levy a quarter-cent sales tax so that cities with Cactus League teams can make much-needed improvements to their stadiums, the Phoenix mayor is developing bigger plans. Johnson wants to use his city's cut of the proposed tax to build a whole new stadium--one that eventually could be expanded to house a major league expansion team.

"I think it is shortsighted to think only in terms of spring training," he says. "That is very important, but Phoenix also needs a strategy for the future."

According to Johnson's plan, which he says is still in the "embryonic stage," Phoenix would build a new stadium--probably on the west side of town--and make it the spring training home of the Oakland A's, who currently train at the east-side Phoenix Municipal Stadium. The new facility would be designed to expand easily to accommodate a major league capacity of 40,000 to 50,000 fans. Then the city would persuade another team--perhaps the Seattle Mariners, who are feuding with their Tempe landlords and threatening to bolt to Florida--to set up spring camp at Municipal.

For Phoenix officials, this stadium shuffle would be a home run. Not only would the city double its spring training revenue by attracting another team, but it also would become the most obvious Valley location for a major league expansion club, should one become available.

In addition, pulling in another spring team or keeping the Mariners in the Valley--along with a new near-major league size stadium--would help shore up the beleaguered eight-team Cactus League. Disgruntled team owners are loudly demanding improvements and better facilities--or else, they threaten, their players will observe the rites of spring elsewhere.

Johnson's pitch has broad appeal. "The new Phoenix stadium would not only be good for Phoenix, it would be good for everybody," he says.

But all is not green grass and blue skies. Legislators say they are under increasing pressure to scrap the idea of a sales tax to subsidize spring training. "There is increasing sentiment out there," one legislator says, "that the tourists and local fans who come out here to watch the games pay for the teams' demands and leave the general public out of it." If the legislature decides to rely on "tourist taxes" like surcharges on recreational vehicle pads or user fees of $1 or $2 per game ticket, the revenue generated will be far short of that needed to build a new ballpark.

Chris Herstam, an aide to Governor J. Fife Symington III, says he also has doubts that an expandable stadium is "that much cheaper, if at all, than building a full-size major league stadium when the time comes.

"I would have to see the cost breakdowns on something like that."
Even if the tax does pass, most observers think that Phoenix would need far more than its own share of the revenue to construct the stadium. In that scenario, other Maricopa County cities could end up partially bankrolling the plan.

Representative Mark Killian, a Mesa Republican, is sponsoring the bill that would allow the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors to impose the tax--which would generate $20 million to $30 million. While Killian says Johnson's idea is "good and interesting," he warns that Phoenix will not be the only city interested in developing a new stadium.

"Other cities, including Gilbert, Peoria, and Glendale, have expressed interest in building a spring training facility," Killian says. "While they may not be concerned with expandable stadiums or expansion teams, they will have an interest in getting their hands on funding."

That "interest" is understandable. Baseball is good business for Arizona cities, and most town fathers drool over the chance to duplicate the economic success of places like Mesa--where the Chicago Cubs and their fans pump an estimated $37 million into the city's economy every year.

"Even though it might improve the odds of keeping the Cactus League in Arizona," one legislator says, "other cities may see [Johnson's plan] as benefiting Phoenix too exclusively. There is too much money involved for them not to get territorial."--Darrin Hostetler

Baseball is good business for Arizona cities, and most town fathers drool over the chance to duplicate the economic success of places like Mesa.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Darrin Hostetler