On economic development, Hillsboro swings and misses

by Brendan Monaghan

What is Hillsboro thinking? Two years after Portland chased away the occasionally mildly-popular AAA Portland Beavers, Hillsboro wants to put Oregon back in the Minor League game. The plan, according to The Oregonian, is to convert an existing adult league baseball park in to a 4,500-seat stadium. With this, they hope to attract a future Single-A team. The stadium would have all the modern amenities and luxuries one could imagine (and why not?), including covered seating and a beer garden. What happens $14 million of city-backed bonds later is perhaps more of a mystery. However, what is clear is that city officials seem to be relying on as much pie-in-the-sky economic activity as planners elsewhere who have bought into stadium-based development.

To recap how we got here, Mayor Sam Adams gambled that Major League Soccer would be a much better draw for the Rose City than Minor League Baseball, and retrofitted PGE Park/Jeld-Wen Field accordingly. As these first two MLS seasons have indicated, Adams’ wild guess was wildly successful- the Timbers continue to sell out, the Beavers never could. Searching for a new home for the Beavers turned out to be a fruitless, futile endeavor. Looking beyond downtown- Lents, Milwaukie, Beaverton- planners quickly ran in to NIMBY concerns. Meanwhile, placing the team in its most logical home would have meant touching the third rail of Portland development and disturbing our apparently sacrosanct, white elephant mausoleum, Memorial Coliseum. Why the perpetually-vacant Coliseum could not be converted in to Memorial Stadium (or used for any other purpose than a perpetually-vacant building) is the Tamam Shud of Portland politics. Opponents did not extend their arguments much beyond “Because . . .”

Now Hillsboro wants a second bite at what is proving to be a rotting apple. The market for baseball in the Portland metro area is a niche one, when it exists. In their final five seasons, the Beavers never averaged more than 5,600 fans, leaving 20,000-seat PGE Park woefully empty. When it became clear Portland couldn’t find a home after Jeld-Wen’s conversion, the team skipped town and moved to Arizona- where the Tucson Padres continue to not draw well. Portland is scarcely alone in their apathy toward Minor League Baseball. As Hillsboro seeks a team from the Northwest League, so much as filling a 4,500-seat park would be an ambitious proposition. Of the eight teams in the Northwest League, only two could muster an average attendance above 4,000 fans. The novelty of a new game in town cannot be relied upon for Hillsboro either- the Padres actually drew fewer fans their first season in Tucson than they did their last in Portland.

Then there is the economic squeeze play that Hillsboro is playing. The city is banking on at least 100,000 fans- many commuting west from outside the city- placing them above average in the Northwest League for attendance. This, they hope, will produce $7.1 million in annual economic activity, thus rendering the project effectively revenue-neutral. However, recent trends have shown that stadium-based development, particularly when publicly-financed, doesn’t deliver. “There are lots of reasons to suspect that stadiums are not good investments,” said Rob Baade, president of the International Association of Sports Economists, in an ESPN.com article before the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. “There’s very little evidence that stadiums are anything more than a benign economic development in a neighborhood.”

Stadiums such as this one would be infrequently used, nominally empty all but 38 nights of the year. This creates an alternating negative cycle between dead time and heavy traffic, both being detrimental to surrounding businesses in their own way. These businesses, which are supposed to capture the fans’ discretionary spending in the form of pre-game dinners and post-game beers, rarely do in reality. For an illustration of this stadium-based development in practice, one need only visit the Rose Quarter, which was never seriously developed and adds very little to the area.

Wayne Gross of Hillsboro Parks and Recreation told The Oregonian their new baseball stadium “will be a great catalyst,” and “create more interest in baseball overall.” Stadiums have proven to be an expression of existing economic prowess, not an initiator of it. Hillsboro developers are relying on the old line that “if you build it, they will come.” While this might work in attracting a new or existing Single-A team, drawing in fans to seats- and more importantly, jobs and economic activity to Hillsboro- seems like more of a fantasy in the cornfields.

Brendan is a graduate student at Portland State University, where he hosts the KPSU “Right Jab” radio program, and a regular contributor at Oregon Catalyst. Brendan is studying political science, and graduated from The Ohio State University in 2007, with a degree in political science.