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New Fenway essential to Red Sox' future

Special to

May 23

It was a romantic walk once. Roger Angell wrote a lyrical account about it in The New Yorker ("to the Fens"), but that was 25 years ago, when Jim Rice was a rookie and three years before Wilton Veras was born.

The walk the last block up Brookline Avenue to the Fens Saturday morning was a sad reminder of a street gone to seed. On the sidewalk that last block were eight beer cans and bottles, plus at least four shattered beer bottles. There were pizza crusts, condoms, a scattered pile of rock club leaflets, a donut, a couple of moldy hot dogs, a pool of vomit, spare rib bones, crushed paper cups, two socks and two broken wine bottles.

Fenway Park
Romance or relic? Fenway Park is from a different era.

At the end of the block, just across the street from Fenway Park, there were two scalpers, in full view of a Boston policeman, hawking their business near the front the steps of the Red Sox ticket office. "If the Boston media walked this block every day, they wouldn't be making fun of New York," said a 25-year old graduate student walking west on the street after his workout at the Gold's Gym behind the Green Monster.

"We walk this walk every day en route to work out. We know this is the neighborhood." He shook his head. "Honestly, compare this to Yankee Stadium."

"It is far cleaner," I replied, "around The Stadium."

This is the neighborhood a handful of "advocates" are trying to save. This is also the neighborhood where Boston mayor Tom Menino ordered the Red Sox to build their new stadium. Now the mayor needs a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

The new Fenway plan
  • The Red Sox submitted a proposed $627 million construction project for a new ballpark and parking garage, to be built essentially next door to the current Fenway Park.

  • The new Fenway would seat 44,130 and incorporate many of the features (such as the Green Monster) of the old Fenway.

  • The team is asking taxpayers to spend $275 to help purchase land and build the parking garage. The Red Sox would invest $352 million of its own money in the project.

  • The Red Sox hope to raise about $128 million from naming rights, $140 million from ticket sales, TV rights and parking revenue and $82 million from new club seats to pay their portion of the project.

  • Boston mayor Thomas Menino has not yet recommended the city invest in the new ballpark.

  • Fenway was wonderful and romantic a generation ago, when new stadiums were WPA recreations in places like Pittsburgh and Atlanta, or the Vet in Philadelphia and Shea Stadium in New York. But the romantic became old. Anyone who goes to Fenway understands the seats are built for people born in the 19th century, that the concessions area was constructed when virtually no concessions were needed during afternoon-only games. It's so old and moldy that it cannot be cleaned. Because it is built on water and landfill and the wood underneath has rotted out, several rows of seats are not bolted down; the last two postseasons, fans have pulled up and lugged off six seats.

    There are great things about Fenway, but they have to do with personality and the fans which may make Boston -- after St. Louis -- the best baseball town in America. But if the politicians cannot close the deal to finance the infrastructure around this rundown, foul area and the Red Sox do not have their new ballpark project set by the end of July when the state legislature ends this year's session, there soon won't be anything romantic about Fenway Park.

    With mayoral and gubernatorial elections upcoming the next two years, it could be three or four years before another ballpark plan can be put in place. Not only may the economy be very different -- Big Dig or no Big Dig, the Massachusetts economy is booming right now, development dollars are readily available and the and medical industries are making a lot of people very rich -- but blue could turn to gray, and that would make any such project far more difficult.

    Four years from now the Red Sox will have fallen from ninth to, at best, 17th to 19th in stadium revenues, which will impact their ability to maintain what currently is a very good team with the region's two biggest sports stars in Pedro Martinez and Nomar Garciaparra. Currently, Boston's 40-man payroll represents one of the highest percentage of overall revenues of any team. They can afford players like Martinez and Garciaparra by maintaining the highest ticket prices in the game, raising them 18 percent each season. That cannot continue. A box seat at Fenway is more expensive than the best box seat at Pac Bell Park in San Francisco.

    If you could see the clubhouses and facilities, you would ask, "What free agent would sign there if he could go instead to Arizona?" Very few. And a cursory trip wouldn't see what happens when it rains for a few days and the tunnels to the dugouts are flooded.

    It's not as if the Red Sox wanted the city and state to have to pay for $275 million of infrastructure needed, or that they wanted the project to cost $635 million. That's Menino's doing. If former Massachusetts politicians like Bill Weld and Paul Tsongas were still in power, a new ballpark would have been completed down by the harbor.

    A Fenway Park on the water? No two cities are better represented on the water than San Francisco and Boston. But Weld, the former governor, and others are not around, as they were to get the Fleet Center built.

    Hey, $275 million of public funds is a lot of money, but Menino ordered the Red Sox to stay in their current location; several years ago, one developer had an option to buy the Sears Building three blocks away and the land on up the street, but Red Sox owner John Harrington passed on it because he thought the site on the water was better -- as it has proven to be in San Francisco. Menino then forced Harrington back to the Fens.

    Oh, the mayor didn't realize that the current site is built on waste, landfill and water that necessitates the construction of what amounts to a fourth harbor tunnel underneath? That's his problem. It's the state that claims that the Red Sox are the city's top tourist attraction and that 35 percent of the customers come from out of state. Anyone interested understands that the additional parking at a new ballpark site will help the other two principles in the area, the medical and educational communities. In case Menino doesn't understand, there is a rather obvious tie between the academic community and the boom.

    The Red Sox are not in the real estate development business, but they assume that once the infrastructure is in place, the developers will follow -- one hotel is already in the plans out near the Pesky Pole -- and a prime undeveloped area of the city will take off economically. This isn't about jeopardizing schools, as what happened to build football stadiums in Jacksonville and Cleveland. No one's asking for a situation like Maryland, where the governor would finance a stadium for the Silver Bullets just to get a photo op.

    The Red Sox are willing to invest $357 million of their own money, more than any club has ever put into a project. Harrington could have thrown up his arms after being misdirected by the mayor. But, while Harrington may have made mistakes, he is a Boston city kid who wants to get this done. Local governments are putting more money into the stadiums in Milwaukee and San Diego, with nowhere near the redeemable revenues expected. The Red Sox are asking for 43 percent of the project to be publically funded, with assurances that it will be repaid with various forms of taxes and increased revenues. They are guaranteeing payment on any cost overruns.

    Costs of recent ballparks
    City/Team Year Pct. public Total
    Chicago 1991 100% $199M
    Baltimore 1992 90% $234M
    Cleveland 1994 78% $212M
    Texas 1994 81% $192M
    Colorado 1995 85% $231M
    Atlanta 1997 80% $260M
    Arizona 1998 67% $354M
    Seattle 1999 72% $515M
    Detroit 2000 35% $328M
    Houston 2000 88% $308M
    San Francisco 2000 4% $338M
    Milwaukee 2001 75% $367M
    Pittsburgh 2001 83% $241M
    San Diego 2002 72% $411M
    Boston ???? 43% $538M

    If you're not from Boston, you don't understand that the residential neighborhood that begins three blocks from the ballpark is transient. It is rental property owned in many cases by slum lords. The average renter lives in his place less than 1.5 years. And all that real estate is only going to multiply in value.

    It's hard to believe what's so tough here. Look at the chart of recent stadiums and see that Harrington -- through naming rights, private seat licenses and a host of corporate attractions he's yet to think out -- is willing to invest more private capital than any club ever has. Camden Yards was 90 percent financed through public funds. Look at what that plan of Donald Schaeffer and Edward Bennett Williams, carried out by then-Orioles president Larry Lucchino, did for Baltimore. Jacobs Field was 78 percent publically funded; during the 1997 World Series, a walk around that once-grungy neighborhood allowed Dick Jacobs to proudly point to nearly a hundred new businesses.

    The Red Sox have less than 70 days to get the public financing plan completed, and it is no idle threat: because politics are what they are, it will be three years and what may be a very different regional economic landscape before they can try to do this again if the current plan falls apart. Last season, the McCormick Institute conducted a study in which 50 percent of Massachusetts taxpayers said the Red Sox "mattered," while only eight percent said the Patriots "mattered." Twice as many taxpayers said the Red Sox mattered more than the other three major pro sports teams combined. If you are one of those Olde Towne team fans who is revelling in their run at the Yankees, enjoy it now.

    This may be the end of the innocence.

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    Gammons: 2000 column archive

    What's in a name? Proposed Boston park at issue
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