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Last edited 3:38 p.m., Feb. 7, 2023 [Editor's note: The article has been updated to clarify some terms of the lease agreement.]
Dubbed America’s pastime, baseball is generally not a tough sell to the public, and in Missouri, that may be especially true for Cardinals baseball, in a state that is home to the team with the most National League World Series wins in history.
But the city of Springfield’s proposed purchase of Hammons Field, home of the St. Louis Cardinals’ Double-A affiliate, and nearby parking lots is not without controversy, as city leaders discovered in a hearing last night on a City Council bill to execute the $16 million deal.
Some city residents offered impassioned support for the purchase, which would keep the Springfield Cardinals in the city through 2038. Yet some spoke of more pressing funding priorities for the city.
Bob Roberts took the podium to reminisce about his love of Cardinals baseball, including a memory of seeing Stan Musial hit a home run at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis. To give a sense of the scope of Roberts’ nostalgia, the last Cardinals game was played in Sportsman’s Park in 1966, and Musial retired 60 years ago.
“Cardinals baseball is a family activity,” Roberts said. “We grew up with them. We hit many home runs in our backyard using a round stick and rocks. We simply admired those rocks as they flew over the fence and relived those actual home runs that we saw in person.”
He added that the purchase would solidify Springfield as “a little slice of heaven on earth for baseball fans.”
But Springfield may not feel like heaven for another speaker, Darlene Steele, who currently resides at Safe to Sleep, a shelter for homeless women run by Council of Churches of the Ozarks Inc.
“Let’s be realistic,” Steele said, noting that nearly a quarter of the city’s residents live in poverty and an estimated 2,500 people are homeless.
“And we have found money in our general budget to spend on a ballpark.”
Steele questioned the fact that private investors are not lining up to buy Hammons Field.
“If it’s that big of a money-maker – if it’s that important to Springfield – where’s somebody with deep pockets? Why have they not stepped up to do this? Why do we feel it necessary to do this out of general funds that could be used for many other purposes?” she asked. “Affordable housing is definitely the top of the list.”
Alice Barber, an organizer of renter support organization Springfield Tenants Unite, agreed.
“The people of Springfield have a lot bigger and more fundamental needs than a baseball field,” she said.
She reminded council that a city-hired consultant told council at a study session last summer that affordable housing access and availability were top priorities in Springfield.
“Now, making those things happen costs money, and the bill that we’re voting on tonight shows me that the city has money. We have $16 million of it,” she said.
How the city spends money reflects its priorities, she said.
“Is Hammons Field really more important than housing and keeping everyone in a safe and accessible place to live?” she said. “Please vote no, and put this money to better use.”
Mayor Ken McClure responded to opponents of the purchase that the city had made a significant investment in housing this year.
“I would just note that we’ve committed more than $12 million in funding for homeless services and facilities this year through the ARPA and the HUD dollars, for the record,” he said, referring to federal funding provided through the American Rescue Plan Act and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
A general fund expenditure
While federal funds have been earmarked for the city’s homelessness initiatives, the $16 million that would be allocated to the ballpark deal comes from the city’s general fund and its level property tax fund.
The city does not have plans to recoup the expenditure. The lease agreement calls for the Cardinals to pay the city an annual rental fee of $650,000, to increase by 3% annually, but all of that money will be returned directly to the Springfield Cardinals organization, with $300,000 to be deposited annually into a city-owned operating fund to be used by the team and the other $350,000 to be deposited into a city-owned capital fund that will be used to make repairs and improvements to the park. At the end of the 15-year lease, any remaining funds will belong to the city.
The lease agreement also includes a provision for the city and the Cardinals to host two co-sponsored events annually and to equally share the profits and losses.
Under the terms of the proposed lease agreement, the Cardinals would operate the newly purchased parking lots, and all revenue from parking would go into the capital fund. The team also would keep all revenue from concessions and advertisements, and a sale of naming rights would also go into the capital fund. Revenue from baseball events of Missouri State University, which shares Hammons Field, would also go into the operating fund after expenses are deducted.
In an email, City Manager Jason Gage said the purpose of the purchase is for the city to retain the Cards for the next 15 years, rather than having to recruit a team to replace them.
“The economic vitality justification relates more generally to the direct benefit of payroll, attendees’ investments in tickets, food and beverage, etc., and the indirect benefit of having an entertainment anchor on the east side of downtown, an overall enhanced community livability and reputational benefit of hosting professional sports,” he said.
He said for this reason, a formal cost-benefit analysis had not been performed. When queried, the Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau Inc. and the Cardinals organization both said they had not conducted an economic impact assessment on the value of the team, either.
“We have believed for nearly two decades that the Springfield Cardinals have demonstrated these benefits and simply wanted to ensure they continue for the next 15 years,” Gage said.
Businessperson Joe Everest, owner of Ozark Fence and Supply Co. LLC, which is a sponsor of the Cardinals, said Hammons Field generates happy memories for his family. It also has provided a significant amount of revenue for his business, he said, adding that his company does fencing work for the Cardinals.
“I’ve had friends that have restaurants downtown that say they can tell you when a home baseball game is just based on their receipts that particular evening,” he said. “The Springfield Cardinals is a boon to the downtown businesses as well.”
Also in favor of the ballpark purchase was attorney Jim Meadows, whose office at Kutak Rock LLP overlooks the ballpark.
“The stadium and the Springfield Cardinals have been a real boon to the community, a real driver of economic change and development, and keeping that as an agent of economic growth in our area is definitely necessary,” he said.
Meadows said when he started practicing law downtown, there was no stadium, and there were limited offerings in the area to grab a meal.
“Since the stadium’s been built, we’ve had new apartment complexes, new housing, built in the immediate vicinity. We’ve had multiple restaurants that stay in the area. It has helped our area stay well developed. It also brings life to the entire downtown community,” he said.
Prior to the council meeting last night, Planning & Zoning had a special meeting, in which it unanimously approved the city’s request to acquire the ballpark and two nearby parking lots and to extend a lease agreement to the Springfield Cardinals for 15 years, through 2038.
A vote by City Council on the purchase is scheduled to happen in a special Valentine’s Day council meeting.
The deal includes a $6.5 million price tag for the ballpark, currently owned by the John Q. Hammons Charitable Trust, and a $5.5 million cost for 4.5- and 0.8 -acre parking lots, currently owned by Atrium Holding Co. and JD Holdings LLC, as well as a $4 million commitment to ballpark renovations required by Major League Baseball.
If council approves the purchase, the matter will go before a judge, as the city and the Hammons Trust are currently parties to a bankruptcy dispute regarding the property. At that point, the Cardinals and the city can ink a deal.
The nonprofit moves into its new campus.