Tuesday, September 03, 2002

Coach going to bat for Hamilton team

Though questions abound, Frontier League baseball worth looking into

By Steve Kemme, skemme@enquirer.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        HAMILTON — Can this old industrial city struggling to reshape its economy and revitalize its downtown actually become the home for a minor-league baseball team with a splendid new ballpark?

        Hamilton's effort to land a Frontier League team may be no easier than hitting a 100-mph fastball on the corner of the plate. But Terry Bridge, New Miami High School's varsity baseball coach and the owner of a sportswear store in Hamilton, can't resist taking a big swing.

        He's trying to put together a group of investors to make a serious bid to the Frontier League, which is not affiliated with Major League Baseball. In the best-case scenario, Hamilton wouldn't get a team until 2004 or 2005.

        “I'd really like to see this thing happen in Hamilton,” Mr. Bridge said. “I think Hamilton and the surrounding area can support a professional baseball team. We're in the infant stages right now, but I think it's something that certainly should be investigated.”

        Some key Hamilton and Butler County officials agree with him.

        But many questions will have to be answered and

        obstacles overcome before a professional baseball team with a new ballpark will come to Hamilton. Most of them revolve around money and market.

        The entry fee for a new team in the Frontier League, which is based in Zanesville, Ohio, is about $650,000. A ballpark would cost several million dollars.

        Florence is close to finalizing an agreement with an ownership group to bring a Frontier League team there next year. Plans call for a 4,000-seat, $4 million stadium that would be built at Interstate 75 and U.S. 42. Hamilton would need a stadium of comparable size.

        “It sounds like a lot of money,” Mr. Bridge said. “But when you look at the revenue that can be created by people coming back downtown after 5 p.m., it outweighs the initial costs.”

        With game tickets generally costing between $4 and $8, the Frontier League promotes itself as low-cost family entertainment.

        Hamilton has lost 3,000 jobs in the past three years, and its downtown is empty after the workday ends. Hamilton officials, who see what Dayton's minor-league team has done for its downtown, are enthralled with the potential benefits a baseball team could bring to their city.

        “The upside would be tourism,” City Manager Mike Samoviski said. “It would make Hamilton a destination spot, help support restaurants and those type of things, and bring business to the Hamiltonian Hotel.”

        “I'm excited about it,” said Hamilton Councilman Richard Holzberger, who introduced the rest of council to Mr. Bridge's Frontier League idea two weeks ago. “It would really help economic development if we could build a ballpark downtown.”

        Mr. Bridge and Mr. Holzberger believe the large parking lots at High Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard would be a good site for a ballpark. Mayor Donald Ryan has mentioned the old Mercy Hospital site as a possibility.

        In Florence, a baseball franchise would boost the economy by about $3 million a year, according to an economic impact study conducted for the city by George Vredeveld, director of the Economic Center for Education and Research at the University of Cincinnati.

        Mr. Vredeveld said that without conducting a study, he couldn't predict whether a Frontier League team would be financially viable in Hamilton. “But the idea is probably worth looking at,” he said.

        The Dayton Dragons, an A-level minor league team that came to town three years ago, has been a rousing success and has revived the northeast end of downtown. Every game has been a sellout.

        “It brings in 600,000 people to the inner city a year,” said Norm Essman, Dayton's acting director of economic development. “That part of downtown has become a hot spot.”

        Hamilton officials are hoping a baseball team would have a similar impact on their downtown.

        Bill Lee, Frontier League president, said that when evaluating a franchise bid, the league considers market, the facility, ownership strength, the local business, political climate and demographics.

        “We're extremely glad there's interest in our league in Hamilton,” he said. “But there are a lot of questions that have to be answered.”

        One question is whether a Hamilton would cut into the markets of other Frontier League teams in Richmond, Ind., and Florence. Both cities are close enough to Hamilton that under the league's franchise agreement, the teams' owners could block Hamilton from getting a team.

        But the Richmond Roosters would welcome a team in Hamilton, said Michael Lause, the team's sales and marketing manager.

        “It would create a greater awareness of our league,” he said. “Hamilton is an hour away from us. I don't see how it could adversely affect us.”

        Mr. Lee said the league would have to see how high attendance figures are for the Florence franchise next year and where their fans come from.

        Greater Cincinnati would not be the first metropolitan area to have two Frontier League teams. The Gateway Grizzlies and the River City Rascals are in the St. Louis area.

        Mr. Bridge said he doesn't think Hamilton would detract from Florence's market because they're at opposite ends of the metropolitan area.

        “There's no way people are going to drive from Hamilton to Florence to see a baseball game unless Hamilton is playing there, and visa versa,” he said. “It would be a great rivalry that would help both teams.”


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