Tom Ricketts understands first-hand how important the atmosphere in and around a pro sports stadium can be.
The Chicago Cubs chairman once lived in an apartment across the street from Wrigley Field, and he first met his wife, Cecelia, in the center field bleachers at Wrigley. The electricity surrounding the stadium, with shops, restaurants, sports bars and fun places to hang out, creates a unique experience.
At Hohokam Stadium in Mesa — the Cubs’ spring training home — the “electricity” surrounding the stadium consists of a cemetery across the street and housing developments all around the site. Fans drive in for the game, have a tough time finding a place to park, then leave for other destinations in the Valley like Scottsdale and Tempe to spend their entertainment dollars. And while the city of Mesa gets to tout itself as the spring home of the Chicago Cubs, the most popular team in the Cactus League, there’s not much beyond that marketing slogan to hang your hat on.
That will change Nov. 2 if voters approve Proposition 420, which would allow Mesa to spend $84 million for a new Cubs spring training facility near Mesa Riverview, and up to $15 million in infrastructure upgrades. (The exact wording on the ballot measure states only that the city can exceed $1.5 million; the law requires the city to get voter approval whenever exceeding that figure on a sports or entertainment complex. But the city and team have already approved a memorandum of understanding that caps the city’s expenditure on the facility at that $99 million total).
“Everyone knows that it’s a lot more than just going to a baseball game,” Ricketts said. “Wrigley is a special place, it’s a magical place. It’s something that you just can’t describe because it has that special feel. We want to get some of that feel in our spring training. We want to get some of that destination kind of feel to our Mesa facility.”
The initial renderings released this week are eye-popping. It includes the usual spring training staples like practice fields and a team clubhouse, which would allow the team to center all of its major league and minor league spring operations as well as year-round player development in one location (they’re split now between Hohokam and Fitch Park).
But what really sets this spring training site apart from others in the Valley is the stadium itself and the surrounding retail possibilities.
The stadium would mimic Wrigley Field with the same dimensions, bleachers in the outfield seating areas, and high-rise buildings beyond the outfield wall overlooking the field.
Immediately adjacent to the stadium entrance would be a retail district dubbed Wrigleyville West that would include Chicago-themed shops, restaurants, bars, hotels and possibly a Cactus League museum (as a comparison, think “Downtown Disney” themed shops that sit just outside Disneyland in California). The Cubs envision some retail outlets that would sit along part of the waterfront at the Riverview Park lake (which would be reshaped to accommodate the shops and still retain the community parks that currently surround it).
The Cubs would be responsible for leasing and developing the Wrigleyville commercial property, and also would take over maintenance and operation costs of the spring training facilities from the city (saving Mesa more than $1 million a year).
The stadium and practice fields would also be available for community events when not used for Cubs baseball.
In the end, city and team officials envision an environment in which fans come early for games and stay late in the surrounding shopping district – an environment Ricketts knows well. Beyond the one month of spring training games, however, the Chicago-themed retail area would remain a year-round destination spot for residents, in particular our many Chicago-area transplants.
Using taxpayer money for sports facilities always draws its share of critics. But several factors minimize those concerns with this proposal:
• The Cubs are footing part of the bill (taking over operating expenses and investing in the privately funded Wrigleyville).
• No new taxes will be imposed to pay for the facilities other than a 2 percent hotel bed tax in the city. The rest of the money will come from the sale of land the city owns in Pinal County. Granted, money from that sale could instead be used for other much-needed services in the city instead of the Cubs. But those services don’t generate the kind of revenue that the Cubs do.
• Cubs’ spring training operations currently provide an estimated economic impact of $138 million per year in the Valley, plus whatever marketing value you place on calling Mesa the “spring home of the Cubs.” That figure can only grow once the Wrigleyville concept becomes a reality. And for Mesa, it means most of that sales tax revenue is staying in the city rather than going to Scottsdale and Tempe.
As you’re deciding which way to vote on Nov. 2, ask yourself this: Which is greater, the amount of money the city wants to spend on a new spring training facility, or the amount of revenue it will generate? The answer is clearly the latter.
In an economic climate where the city is struggling to attract new businesses and needs every revenue option available, we all need to vote yes on Proposition 420.