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Don't Weep For The Towns That Lost Minor League Teams To MLB's Reorganization

In February, Major League Baseball made official what had been rumored to be in the works for months: a realignment of minor league baseball resulting in 43 teams being stripped of their affiliation.

Hagerstown Municipal Stadium seen in 2018. The Western Maryland park dates back to the 1930s and hosted the minor league Hagerstown Suns until 2021.

Taken at a glance, it appeared to be a devastating blow to several small towns, the removal of an economic driver, a cultural center or both. But the vast majority of those teams will continue to operate in either independent leagues or newly formed leagues for collegiate and pre-draft athletes, and some of the towns where teams ceased operations are already formulating plans to repurpose their ballparks, most of which are owned by the municipalities already.

Minor league teams and the construction of new minor league stadiums were found to have a neutral-to-positive impact on the average income of their cities' residents, according to a 2011 study in the Journal of Sports Economics. As for the effects on local development or retail business, local officials have found them hard to quantify.

Only four teams have officially closed up shop: the Hagerstown Suns in Western Maryland, the Lancaster JetHawks in Los Angeles County, the Florida Fire Frogs and the Charlotte Stone Crabs, both on Florida’s Gulf Coast. The Norwich Sea Unicorns of Connecticut and the Jackson Generals of Tennessee are still attempting to find leagues

Sadness, But Not Desperation

The Stone Crabs played in a facility that is still under a long-term agreement with its former big league affiliate, the Tampa Bay Rays, as its spring training home. The Stone Crabs’ demise might mean more revenue for the county-owned facility, Punta Gorda/Englewood Beach Visitor & Convention Bureau Tourism Director Sean Doherty told Bisnow.

“Part of me was a little upset [with the Stone Crabs being eliminated] because I’m a baseball fan myself of all levels and enjoy watching minor league baseball as much as the big leagues,” Doherty said. “At the same time, my thoughts were that it could provide an opportunity for the tourism bureau.”

When the Rays or Stone Crabs weren’t using the county-owned Charlotte Sports Park, it would play host to national collegiate and high school baseball tournaments, which easily drew more people and revenue than Stone Crabs games, Doherty said. Though the Rays will retain priority usage of the facility for extended spring training and rehab for big-league players, losing the Stone Crabs frees up the complex, which has five side fields in addition to the stadium, to host more tournaments.

The Hangar, a minor league baseball stadium in Lancaster, California, as of 2016

“We immediately got several calls from tournament organizers,” Doherty said of the period after the Stone Crabs were excised from MLB affiliation. “We did look at it as an opportunity, and an example I looked at was when the Nationals used to have spring training in Viera and left that facility completely. I was speaking to my counterpart over there, and he was really excited because of all the opportunities to have more events and tournaments to generate more impact.”

The Stone Crabs had only been in existence since 2009, so it wasn’t tied strongly to the towns’ identity either. In contrast, Hagerstown had hosted minor league baseball since the construction of city-owned Hagerstown Municipal Stadium in 1930, and the Suns occupied it since the early 1980s.

“It definitely brought tourism to the city,” Hagerstown Business Development Specialist Doug Reaser said. “[But] over the last few years, it was declining for a variety of reasons, but on the whole, there’s an opportunity for baseball to return, and I’m sure there are local efforts to bring baseball back.”

Those efforts are being spearheaded by local oil magnate Howard “Blackie” Bowen, who has secured conditional approval with the independent Atlantic League for a new team that would play in an all-new stadium in a different part of town. Bowen and local state Sen. Paul Corderman are seeking $60M to $70M from the Maryland Stadium Authority for the park’s construction, while Hagerstown leadership is working on a request for proposals for a redevelopment of Municipal Stadium, Reaser said.

“I think the direction with the RFP would be an indoor facility to continue the sports tourism aspect of the stadium site,” Reaser said, acknowledging that demolition is one possible outcome.

Though officials in the northern Los Angeles County city of Lancaster were upset with MLB’s lack of communication on removing the JetHawks’ affiliation, baseball paled in comparison as a draw for visitors to the city’s main industry of aerospace engineering. It is the nearest municipality of reasonable size to two Air Force bases, as well as facilities for defense contractors Boeing and Lockheed Martin, city of Lancaster Senior Manager of Economic Development and Real Estate Chenin Dow said.

“At this point, we haven’t had demand [for more professional baseball] and are not exploring those options,” Lancaster Parks, Arts, Recreation and Community Services Director Sonya Patterson said. “We’re in an exploratory phase looking at how we can reimagine and repurpose the stadium for future use.”

An entrance to Charlotte Sports Park, the Tampa Bay Rays' spring training facility, seen in 2009

Like Hagerstown, Lancaster envisions broadening the usage of The Hangar, as the city-owned park is called, to a facility capable of putting on events for multiple sports that can be used by the community and youth sports competitions. Dow stressed that though the city is looking forward, it acknowledges that minor league baseball was a significant part of the fabric of a community that was only incorporated in 1977.

“I myself remember going to games when I was 8 years old, so the community has always been invested,” Dow said. “So losing the team is painful; I don’t want to shy away from that.”

Life (And Business) Goes On

Though The Hangar sits in a part of town marketed as the Front Row District, a 22-screen Cinemark movie theater and a mixed-use development known as Lancaster Marketplace are nearby and draw crowds all on their own. 

Neither Dow nor Patterson consider The Hangar a neighborhood anchor, but both are hoping that the park’s next life coincides with development on nearby city-owned land of multiple hotels, which was delayed significantly due to the coronavirus pandemic, and future plans for workforce housing with mixed-use components.

Surrounding Municipal Stadium in Hagerstown is an industrial site to the south and a bar and restaurant called The Stadium to the north, which Reaser acknowledged would probably be hit hardest by the Suns’ exit of any local business. The proposed new stadium would be within Hagerstown’s small downtown area.

“I wouldn’t say that there’s a lot of a commercial district [surrounding Municipal Stadium],” Reaser said.

The Rays’ spring training facility is a tourism anchor for fans of the big league squad during its preseason, but the team’s permanent home of Tampa is close enough that Charlotte County doesn’t get a massive increase in hotel business as a result, Doherty said. The Rays have an agreement with the county that runs to the end of the decade and the team ensures that the facilities are kept up to a higher standard than most local fields for high school and college teams experience. 

If tournament business grows the way Doherty expects, the complex could be more effective as an economic driver than it was as a minor league stadium. 

“That area is one of the pockets of the county that is undergoing some development as we speak,” Doherty said. 

Across from the park is a fairgrounds that plays host to several events per year that draw more visitors than a minor league game, and adjacent is a Harley-Davidson dealership that partnered with a restaurant operator for a themed entertainment venue. Two nearby land parcels are in the planning phase of mixed-use development, one as a multifamily complex with potential retail and hotel components and the other with plans for a water park, amphitheater and its own hotel and retail uses, though the latter has not had much movement in the past year or so.

“We’re hoping that will come through, because it would be nice to have sort of a downtown development district,” Doherty said. “People ask my department where the downtown is, and we don’t really have one. So it would be nice to have something walkable, with the stadium being a big piece of that.”