New Stadia: Detroit and Milwaukee

Detroit's first American League game was played at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull. Until this spring, the Tigers had occupied the site for 99 years. Tiger Stadium was a great place to watch a ballgame -- but nowadays that's no longer good enough.

The Tigers' push for a new park began in the mid-1980s, when Domino's Pizza magnate Tom Monaghan owned the club. Monaghan proclaimed that the club's need for luxury boxes, offices and concession areas could not be met by renovating Tiger Stadium: the old structure had decayed beyond repair.

Opponents quickly organized a Tiger Stadium Fan Club. The TSFC sponsored several media-friendly events, notably "stadium hugs" in which supporters encircled the park to express their loyalty and affection for Tiger Stadium.

On a more practical level, the TSFC revealed that Monaghan's analysis had more holes than his ballpark. An independent architect who examined the park found no serious structural problems with Tiger Stadium. The architects who had renovated Monaghan's own luxury box proposed the "Cochrane Plan" to renovate the park, concluding that all of Monaghan's demands could be met for $26.1 million. Monaghan didn't want to hear it. Neither did city officials. But on March 17, 1992, Detroiters voted 2:1 to bar the use of public funds to replace Tiger Stadium.

Later that year, the frustrated Monaghan sold the Tigers to fellow pizza baron Mike Ilitch. This transaction changed the dynamic of future negotiations. Monaghan, based in suburban Ann Arbor, was seen as an outsider, whereas Ilitch, who also owned the NHL Red Wings, had already invested millions in downtown Detroit. Ilitch knew his way around local government, and knew how to plead his case to the voters.

The first step was to strike a deal with city officials. In October 1995, Ilitch and Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer announced plans to replace Tiger Stadium with a $235 million baseball park in downtown Detroit. The Tigers agreed to pay more than 60% of the cost, or $145 million, and to assume responsibility for cost overruns. The State of Michigan would provide $55 million from a strategic fund for land acquisition, road improvements and other infrastructure expenses. The City of Detroit agreed to contribute $35 million, with the Detroit City Council obligingly repealing the anti-stadium ordinance adopted by the voters in 1992.

The TSFC didn't give up. It sued the state, arguing that the strategic fund money couldn't be used for a stadium without the express approval of the Michigan legislature, and collected enough signatures to place another referendum on the Detroit ballot. The new vote was scheduled for March 1996.

With a firm plan in place, stadium backers closed ranks and opened wallets in support of the new park. Their well-funded campaign outspent opponents by an estimated 60:1. Supporters played to Detroiters' resentment of the surrounding suburbs, which had flourished while downtown Detroit became a national symbol of urban decay, by portraying the TSFC and other opponents as elitist outsiders. The strategy worked, as 80% of voters endorsed Ilitch's stadium proposal. Shortly thereafter, the TSFC's court challenge was dismissed. Tiger Stadium's fate was sealed.

By 1997, when construction began, the estimated cost had risen from $235 to $260 million. This June, the Detroit Free Press reported that Comerica Park had actually cost $361 million -- an overrun of more than 50% from the original plan. Most of the overrun was paid by the Tigers, but the local government's share rose to $80 million, financed by a countywide 2% tax on rental cars and 1% surcharge on hotel rooms.

The Tigers borrowed $145 million from Sumitomo Bank to finance their original share. As costs rose, Ilitch sold naming rights to Comerica Bank for $66 million over 30 years, then started writing checks. When the dust had settled, the Free Press estimated that the Tigers, or other entities controlled by Ilitch, had paid a larger share of their park's cost than any other recent owner except the San Francisco Giants.

But the Tigers will have little trouble getting the money back from their fans. The club doubled its average ticket price this year, from $12.23 to $24.83. Tiger Stadium's double-decked bleachers, the park's signature architectural element, were replaced by much smaller open-air bleachers. At the other end of the price range, Comerica's 102 luxury suites rent for between $90,000 and $125,000/year, providing the club with another $10 million in annual revenue. The Ilitch family also controls concessions, merchandise and parking rights at the stadium, and owns many of the nearby garages.

The stadium deal also provides the Tigers with 36,000 square feet of office space at the park and allows the club to administer another 70,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space at the site. The city, which owns Comerica, receives no rent from the Tigers and needs the club's consent to use the park for any purpose.

Comerica's most striking features -- and the most maddening, for members of the TSFC and other baseball purists -- are located outside the park. Like Fenway Park (which opened the same day), Tiger Stadium was a no-nonsense baseball park. Comerica is a "sports/entertainment complex," as similar to its predecessor as Ilitch's Little Caesar's is to a neighborhood pizzeria.

At Comerica, snarling tigers guard the entrance gates. A 50-foot Ferris wheel with 12 baseball-shaped cars rises behind third base. A colorful carousel, festooned with tigers and chariots, stands behind first. The water fountain behind center field, near the "world's largest scoreboard," shoots "liquid fireworks" 150 feet in the air A barbecue grill, beer hall and food court complete the experience.

To paraphrase Joni Mitchell, Detroit paved paradise and put up an amusement park.

The new-stadium game has a long history in Milwaukee: County Stadium was the first government-funded park built specifically to lure another team into moving. The Braves arrived from Boston's rundown Braves Field in 1953 They set numerous attendance records during their first years in Milwaukee, but after the honeymoon wore off, the Braves moved on to a newer park in Atlanta.

A young car dealer named Bud Selig, who had headed the save-the-Braves movement, vowed to bring another club to his hometown. Although Milwaukee was snubbed in the 1969 expansion, six days before the 1970 season began, Selig's syndicate bought the Seattle Pilots at bankruptcy auction and moved them to Milwaukee.

A quarter-century later, it was Selig's turn to warn that his team needed a new stadium -- with a retractable dome, of course -- and that if Milwaukee wouldn't provide one, someone else would. Unimpressed Wisconsin voters resoundingly rejected, 64-36, a proposal to establish a new lottery to fund the park.

Enter Governor Tommy Thompson. In August 1995, just five months after the referendum, Thompson called the legislature into special session to push for a new stadium for the Brewers. Thompson, who had risen to national prominence as a welfare reformer, made clear that he considered the Brewers a worthier recipient of public funds.

"Wisconsin can't afford to lose its major league status," Thompson explained. "Having the team is important to the city. It's important to our economy and most importantly, it's important to the state." Never mind that the voters had just made clear how unimportant they considered the Brewers...

Noting that the referendum had actually passed in Milwaukee and neighboring counties, Thompson proposed a special stadium district for this region. As finally presented to the legislature, the stadium authority would pay $160 million of the estimated $250 million cost of a new park for the Brewers, raising the money through a 0.1% sales tax surcharge in five southeastern Wisconsin counties. The Brewers would be responsible for the remaining $90 million.

The stadium plan narrowly passed the state Assembly, but was rejected twice by the state Senate. With Thompson lobbying his fellow Republicans, the debate continued long into the night on the last day of the special session. Finally at 5 AM, George Petak, a Republican from Racine whose district would be subject to the sales tax, switched his vote. The stadium bill passed, 16-15 -- and Petak's irate constituents promptly launched the first successful recall campaign in Wisconsin history. But Thompson and Selig had their stadium.

Or so they thought. The Brewers soon declared that they couldn't raise the $90 million they had promised to contribute. The team, which had planned to borrow $50 million of this sum from a state agency, revealed that four banks already held liens on the Brewers, leaving no collateral left to secure such a loan. In a delicious irony, losses from the labor dispute caused by Selig's hard-line tactics now endangered his control of the team.

This announcement triggered a chain reaction. The stadium authority threatened to pull the plug. Fans in Charlotte, North Carolina, home of the bank with the biggest claim on the Brewers, salivated at the prospect of obtaining the team through foreclosure. MLB officials grimaced at the thought of the Acting Commissioner losing his team to its lenders. And Selig and Thompson huddled with Wisconsin business leaders to see what could be done.

In late June 1996, after four months of frantic negotiations, the Brewers finally found the money. None of it was their own. When the team's most logical sponsor, the Miller Brewing Company, bought naming rights, the entire $20 million present value of the deal was credited to the Brewers' contribution even though the stadium authority owned a majority interest in the park. The Brewers borrowed $10 million more against future concession revenues.

The other $60 million came from third parties. The American League contributed a $10 million letter of credit. (No word if the NL assumed this obligation when the Brewers switched leagues.) The city of Milwaukee, whose residents were already being taxed to pay for the park, anted $15 million more. Local businesses collected another $14 million, and two local foundations loaned the remaining $21 million. Meanwhile, the state, city and county quietly pledged another $72 million for infrastructure improvements around the stadium, which was to be built in County Stadium's parking lot.

"Corporate welfare? Absurd," said Selig in 1997. Somehow keeping a straight face, he assured the New York Times that Miller Park "will produce a better return than many of the things that get government funds."

Construction on Miller Park began in late 1996. Following the modern trend, it has 10,000 fewer seats, but 74 more skyboxes, than County Stadium. The Brewers' plans to open the 2000 season in their new home came to a crashing half on July 14, 1999, when the fifty-story crane which was lifting a 400-ton section of the retractable roof collapsed in a 30 MPH wind. Three workers died. The resulting cleanup has delayed Miller Park's opening until 2001, when it will share the spotlight with Pittsburgh's new PNC Park.

The wave of new parks won't stop there. San Diego's new stadium will open in 2002, Cincinnati's in 2003. The Red Sox, Phillies, Mets and Cardinals hope to relocate by mid-decade, while the Marlins, Expos and Twins are begging for new homes.

Even if the Red Sox leave Fenway, one classic ballpark seems destined to survive forever. In 2014, Wrigley Field will become the first park to celebrate its hundredth birthday. And In a world of ballparks-as-shopping malls, where new stadiums charge the average fan more to sit further from the field, Wrigley will still be the best place in North America to watch a major league baseball game. Yet it never cost the taxpayers a dime...

Copyright © 2000 Doug Pappas. All rights reserved.
Originally published in the September 2000 issue of Boston Baseball.

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