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Baseball makes a pitch in North Carolina
by Chip Alexander

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Vernon Robinson knows something about baseball pitches. In the past few months, he has heard them all, pro and con, about bringing a big-league baseball team to the Greensboro area. Robinson, a member of the Winston-Salem Board of Aldermen, has perused all the economic studies and waded through the myriad, confusing numbers. For example, those who hail a baseball team say it would:

Create 3,100 new jobs for the Triad (the area around Winston-Salem, Greensboro and High Point).

Have an annual economic impact of $140 million.

Attract new businesses to the region.

Unify and elevate the Triad as a "big-league community." With that in mind, baseball proponents are urging voters in Forsyth and Guilford counties to approve a referendum Tuesday to help build a $210 million stadium near Kernersville. The referendum -- which must be approved by a majority of voters in each county -- would institute a 1 percent prepared-food sales tax and a 50-cent ticket tax to baseball games, raising $140 million of the construction costs.

Don Beaver, a Hickory businessman who hopes to buy the Minnesota Twins and bring them to North Carolina, and a group of investors will pay the other $70 million. Beaver says he wants to make the Triad the Twins' permanent home in 2001 when the stadium is ready, with a two-year temporary stop in Charlotte.

Robinson's reaction to the pitch?

"The way I see it, it'll be an economic wash at best," he said. "They (proponents) talk about all the intangible benefits. The reason? The tangibles just aren't there."

But baseball proponents, such as Peter Reichard, president of the Greensboro Area Chamber of Commerce, say Robinson's views are short-sighted. As Reichard sees it, a baseball team would be a boon to the Triad, no matter the dollar figures.

"The numbers are inconsequential to the intangibles and the shaping of the psyche of the community," he said. "This community has always felt it was third behind Charlotte and Raleigh, with the finance and research and technology in those two communities. We're always asking, 'Who are we?'

"This will raise the community into the big leagues. It will raise the bar within the community and people will start thinking differently about themselves."

Two months ago, polls indicated Reichard and other supporters would be disappointed by the referendum. The poll, commissioned for the Winston-Salem Journal, showed 61 percent opposed and just 31 percent in favor of the tax.

But the most recent polling for the Journal, conducted last week, indicated the gap had closed. Fifty percent of those surveyed said they were against the tax and 43 percent in favor, with 7 percent undecided.

Debating the numbers, Reichard and others say a stadium would cost the average person just $12 a year, noting the average price of a fast-food meal would be boosted from $4.23 to $4.27. In other words, they say, mere pennies and hardly a sacrifice given potential rewards.

Such is the debate, and it is one that has been waged in various forms from coast to coast, in Cincinnati and Seattle and Minnesota about big-league sports and the building of costly new stadiums and arenas.

Once again, the dialogue is filled with such economic terms as "new money" and complicated by "commercial sports multipliers." Even some of the faces are the same -- John Connaughton, to name one.

In the fall of 1996, the UNC-Charlotte economics professor conducted a study for the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, forecasting that an NHL franchise would generate $111 million a year and a total of 1,800 new jobs in the metropolitan area.

Connaughton had even better numbers for Triad baseball: the 3,100 new jobs and economic impact of $140 million a year. He soon was blasted by Triad critics, who called his survey wildly optimistic and worse.

"I'm told that man (Connaughton) was paid $10,000 to do it by those who want baseball," said Ken Conrad, who heads Citizens Against Unfair Taxes, a Triad group seeking to defeat the referendum.

Greensboro's Paul Gibson, a member of the Forsyth-Guilford Metropolitan Baseball Park Authority that would oversee the new stadium, wonders how many of those jobs would be part time and low-paying, such as beer vendors and ticket takers, and questions who would benefit the most from having a team.

"The figures are terribly inflated and not the economic cure-all many think it will be," Gibson said. "Plus, baseball is a flawed business. Most teams are losing money.

"It will cost us $300 million for this stadium with all the interest and debt. That's too big a risk."

Gibson, Conrad and others point to an extensive analysis of "big-league cities" conducted by economist Robert Baade, a policy adviser at the Heartland Institute, a think tank in Chicago. Baade's study of teams and stadiums in 36 metro areas and concluded that pro sports in almost all cases had a negligible impact on the area's per-capita economic growth.

Baade's studies showed that much of the money simply was redistributed -- from spending on movies and bowling alleys to baseball tickets, for example.

Baade, a professor at Lake Forest College, has characterized pro sports as creating a "reverse Robin Hood effect," taking money from the poor (taxpayers) and giving it to the rich (team owners and athletes). And a kicker is that many owners and players don't have permanent residences in the cities or regions where their teams are located, although North Carolina now requires all non-residential members of pro teams to have state income taxes withheld from their salaries after they play in the state.

"Mr. Beaver and his group wouldn't even have to pay property tax here, because we'd own the stadium," said Gibson, the authority member. "Charlotte gets $1.9 million a year from Ericsson Stadium, which was privately built. We'd get zero."

Mary Rakestraw, a Guilford County commissioner, bluntly calls it the "Big Doughnut."

A late, but interesting, entry into the heated Triad debate is a report by a group of 16 graduate and undergraduate students at UNC-Greensboro's Bryan School of Business and Economics.

Their study, published in several Triad newspapers, centered in part on the Maryland Stadium Authority's analysis of Camden Yards, which found that about 12 percent of fans attending Baltimore Orioles games are from outside the region and spend the night.

"Looking at (Connaughton's) $140 million figure, we felt that was more economic activity and not true economic impact to the community," group member David Schomberg said. "That's why we wanted to look only at spending from those outside the Triad, not at the redistribution of expenditures. Ours was more a common-sense, neutral approach."

The bottom line of the UNCG study: Based on an average game attendance of 18,000, some $13 million annually would be spent locally in new money. That would barely offset the $12 million a year needed to pay off the stadium debt.

"Our conclusion is that it will not be a big economic engine within the community," Schomberg said. "Worst case, it's a break-even situation. Still, we felt the intangibles made the difference and make the venture worthwhile."

The voters, of course, will have the final say and if recent polls are correct, it could be close.

"I think baseball is a good investment," said Edmund Fairley, a Greensboro resident who says he will vote for the sales tax. "It could help recruit industries and it could help recruit young people back to the area. I think major-league baseball could take this community to the next level."

At least, that's the pitch.