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Cooperstown's annual baseball dreams in jeopardy

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Cooperstown youth baseball camps in danger of cancellation (2:34)

The possible cancellation of summer baseball camps and tournaments in Cooperstown, N.Y. would mean the loss of millions in revenue for the local business community. (2:34)

The story that baseball was invented in Cooperstown, New York, is only a myth, but there is no denying that the game sustains the place.

Each summer, tens of thousands of baseball devotees from across the country travel to the area to take part in a series of youth baseball tournaments and to visit the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

The influx of baseball pilgrims keeps many locals -- innkeepers, Vrbo and Airbnb entrepreneurs, restaurant and souvenir shop owners, waiters and clerks -- economically afloat for the entire year. Now, all that is jeopardized by the threat posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

"We're all sort of holding our breath up here and wondering how we are going to make it through this year," said Lori Fink, owner of Tin Bin Alley, a sweet shop on Cooperstown's picturesque, 19th century-era Main Street. "This is a big deal for us. We're sort of one day at a time now."

Stores and other businesses in Otsego County that collect sales taxes averaged a total of $21 million a month in business last baseball season, as opposed to $16 million a month in the offseason. The additional county tax revenue resulting from the surge in baseball business is estimated to be about $6 million a year, a figure roughly equivalent to one-half of Otsego's property tax receipts.

"If people don't come this summer, many businesses in the area are going to get absolutely crushed," said Otsego County Treasurer Allen Ruffles, adding: "We are going to get hit hard too. It is going to be devastating."

For the moment, things are looking bleak. The Hall of Fame is closed indefinitely, and its highly anticipated July 26 induction ceremony featuring Yankees great Derek Jeter is in limbo. The Hall has already canceled special events scheduled for May, including its Hall of Fame Classic weekend, which would have brought a group of retired major leaguers together to play an exhibition game on historic Doubleday Field.

Meanwhile, the Cooperstown Dreams Park, a youth facility that draws more than 17,000 players and coaches at $1,300 per person, plus an estimated 50,000 other family members over the course of the summer, has canceled its entire 2020 season.

In past years, stars like Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, David Price and Odell Beckham Jr. -- who was a multisport standout before turning exclusively to football -- were among the youngsters who graced the Dream Park's 22 carefully manicured diamonds. This year, the facility's owners have offered its barracks-style buildings, which normally house a stream of starry-eyed young ballplayers and their coaches, to the state of New York to house those gravely sickened by the coronavirus. The owners also offered to establish a food pantry and soup kitchen to help the many local residents sure to be economically devastated in the crisis.

"Cooperstown Dreams Park was hoping to avoid this outcome, but it is the only responsible course of action," Dreams Park officials said in a statement. "Like the rest of the nation, we have never experienced anything like this."

Local officials worry that the Hall's decisions and the elimination of the Dreams Park season are only the beginning of a crushing wave of coronavirus-related cancellations. Three other large youth baseball facilities in the area -- Cooperstown Baseball World, Cooperstown All Star Village and Cooperstown Baseball Camp -- that together draw an estimated 50,000 summer visitors to the area are also weighing canceling their seasons, even if they are holding on for now.

There are many places where the cancellation of sports caused by the coronavirus outbreak is causing bigger economic disruptions in raw-dollar terms. Atlanta, which was scheduled to host the Final Four the first weekend in April, is missing out on an estimated $106 million of new spending, although that is just a small sliver of the region's $350 billion-plus economy. But few places are being hit as hard as Cooperstown, which relies heavily on baseball to pay the bills.

Cooperstown-area officials and businesspeople worry that if the coronavirus prevents the usual flow of baseball tourists, the local economy will suffer greatly.

"Those three months of the summer are the lion's share of our business," said Art Boden, general manager of Upstate Bar and Grill, Bocca Osteria and New York Pizzeria, a family-owned group of restaurants located at the southern gateway to Cooperstown. "If you take away the mashed potatoes, then gravy becomes your main entrée."

Fink, owner of Tin Bin Alley, estimated that 75% of her business is generated in the summer. This year, she was planning to hire eight young people to help out in the shop, but those plans are on hold. "We certainly have a lot of local support, but without Dreams Park, I won't be pouring nearly as much fudge or scooping as much ice cream. That is going to impact our household, our livelihood," she said.

The entire Cooperstown region is bracing for a severe economic blow if things do not return to normal shortly. The area has been known as the home of baseball for over a century. In 1905, a commission created by sporting goods titan and former pitcher A.G. Spalding determined that baseball had been invented in Cooperstown in the 1830s by Abner Doubleday, who later went on to become a noted Civil War general. The commission's claim was later found to be a total fabrication, but that did not stop Cooperstown from capitalizing on the national pastime.

The Hall of Fame was established in 1936, marking Cooperstown as a bucket-list stop for ardent baseball fans. That has intensified in recent decades as several large youth baseball tournaments and camps were opened in the rural communities just outside Cooperstown, drawing young baseball players and their families from across the country and, sometimes, from other nations.

"We're an absolute economic engine for Central New York," said Cooperstown Mayor Ellen Tillapaugh. "The sports parks that have developed here did so because of their proximity to Cooperstown. We certainly lend our name to companies that are not located in the village but benefit from being close to it."

It is a mutually beneficial arrangement. The village's Main Street is lined with mom and pop restaurants as well as baseball-themed shops. There are stores selling vintage baseball caps and gift shops peddling autographed baseballs. Others sell baseball cards or commemorative bats.

The traffic drawn by those businesses not only keeps the shop owners going but also generates $400,000 a year in parking revenue for the village of 1,800 people.

Meanwhile, other business owners benefit from the annual baseball-fueled influx. The kayak outfitters and boat rental shops that line the shores of nearby Otsego Lake see a surge of business from the baseball tourists, as do the wineries, breweries, cider mill and distillery along the Cooperstown Beverage Trail.

"It is an active group of people who come here for baseball. And us being where we are and having the natural assets that we do only makes it better for the people who come here," said Cassandra Harrington, executive director of the Destination Marketing Corp. for Otsego County.

Last year, Otsego County hotel and lodge owners and short-term renters did about $50 million of business, and nearly $30 million of that amount was collected during baseball season, according to Ruffles, the county treasurer.

During baseball season, a three-bedroom house rents for as much as $2,500 a week, and during Hall of Fame induction weekend, some homeowners fetch as much as $10,000 a week, Ruffles said.

"Maybe 20% of the residential properties here convert to short-term rentals in the summer," said Mayor Brian Pokorny of Milford, a 400-population village near Cooperstown. "The majority are people's primary residences. They simply vacate or, sometimes, camp for the summer."

This year's induction weekend promised to be especially lucrative. The ceremony was expected by some to draw a near-record crowd -- maybe 80,000 or more -- because Jeter is among those to be enshrined. For now, the ceremony is still on the schedule, although the Hall of Fame said it is closely watching the situation.

"Discussions regarding this public health emergency's potential impact on 2020 Induction Weekend will take place in due time as we all learn more about the course and impact of this pandemic," museum spokesman Jon Shestakofsky said in a statement. "In the meantime, our plans will continue forward with an Induction Ceremony in July. We share the hope of Americans and the global community for a return to normalcy as soon as possible."

Tim Haney, president of the Cooperstown Bat Company, runs two stores on Main Street, as well as a mill and a factory where chunks of lumber known as billets are transformed into baseball bats. He employs 18 full-time workers and another 30 each summer to handle the increased crowds. He sells roughly 65,000 bat billets and 40,000 bats a year, and a good share of that bat business comes from tourists.

"It is hard to say what this place would be like without baseball," Haney said.

Despite the pervasive gloom, some businesses are clinging to hope. Cooperstown All Star Village is expecting 70 teams a week for its 12-week season this year. About 945 players a week pay $1,095 to compete on 11 fields with LED scoreboards and lighting for night games. Many of the fields are designed to evoke the big leagues: Some have artificial turf, one is called Yankee Stadium, and two others have an 11-foot-high version of Fenway Park's Green Monster. All Star Village employs 250 people during peak season and eight year-round.

When players are not on the field, they can hang out at the game arcade or lounge in the glove-shaped swimming pool. So far, All Star Village has not canceled its upcoming season, and its owner said he would make a determination four weeks before each week of its season, which begins in early June.

"The kids have made all their arrangements. I don't want to steal this remaining glimmer of hope from these 12-year-olds," said Martin Patton, who owns All Star Village. "We are going to take it a week at a time."

He said if the games go forward it would require "careful compromise." By that, Patton means players would spend nights at hotels with their parents, rather than in bunkhouses with their teammates and coaches. Also, there would be no high-fiving on the diamond, and he would somehow try to enforce social distancing. If he can pull it off, he said, it would be a small price to pay to play ball.

"We're hopeful that we can do it," Patton said.