Zion's lust to provide a city-owned stadium to an independent baseball team that owes $185,000 in back rent since its inaugural season in 2010 was perfectly understandable, says a prominent sports economist.
But that doesn't mean it was a good idea.
"It really is a terrible investment for the city," said Lake Forest College economics and business Professor Robert Baade, whose work "Getting Into the Game: Is the Gamble on Sports as a Stimulus for Urban Economic Development a Good Bet?" was published by the Brookings Institute this year.
Richard Ehrenreich's Grand Slam Sports and Entertainment, the Fielders' parent company, recently received a default notice from Zion that's a formal demand for the $185,000 in unpaid rent since 2010. City Attorney Paula Randall said the team may play in the facility while the matter is unsettled.
Ehrenreich contends Zion hasn't delivered a permanent stadium as promised in a 25-year operating agreement, so that's why he's stopped paying the rent. He said he may fold the Fielders soon if Zion doesn't commit to construction this month, because playing a second year in a temporary facility is causing financial stress.
State taxpayers funded $1.3 million in infrastructure and utility work for Zion's baseball facility. It has 4,500 temporary seats and permanent elements such as lights, the playing field, dugouts and a parking area at Route 173 and Green Bay Road. But the total cost of the permanent stadium is an estimated $7.5 million.
Baade said cities such as Zion and Waukegan have become entrepreneurial in an effort to bring in more money because they have been hit hard by reduced federal and state revenue sharing,
Waukegan made unsuccessful efforts for a state casino license, while Zion decided to go for baseball. Baade said the ideas in both cities were understandable given their financial struggles.
"One thing about baseball, it's a clean industry," Baade said.
Baade said a city can benefit from a minor league or independent baseball team if it is enough of a regional attraction and a stadium is near businesses that can receive economic runoff.
However, trying to get spectators from outside Zion to see independent baseball and players with little or no chance of making the Major Leagues is a difficult proposition in the Chicago area, he said. The attendance was announced as 280 for the Fielders' Aug. 3 home game against the Calgary Vipers.
"What really is the attraction?" said Baade. "If you want to see a baseball game, you could see a high school game or a college game."
Zion Mayor Lane Harrison, who cited the economic benefits they expected to result from the Fielders before the team began play last year, has declined to comment on the Fielders now based on legal advice.
Harrison had said the Fielders and the stadium would be amenities to boost Zion's Trumpet Corporate Park and keep Illinois companies from crossing into Wisconsin. LakeView Corporate Park in the border town of Pleasant Prairie, Wis., has features such as a 260,000-square-foot recreation and ice-skating facility.
But that position is questioned by another prominent sports economist, who says minor or independent league baseball teams should be sought primarily as an entertainment option.
Economics Professor Andrew Zimbalist of Smith College in Northampton, Mass., cowrote "Sports Jobs and Taxes: The Economic Impact of Sports Teams and Stadiums." He said teams shouldn't be seen as a means for job creation or boosting an economy.
Sales tax revenue increases that may result from a baseball team often are offset by publicly funded stadium expenses, Zimbalist said. In addition, he said, no economic boost results from a team if someone chooses a game over a movie or dinner out.
"It's just moving money around the local economy," Zimbalist said.
In a news release issued last week, Zion said it won't be receiving further state funding the city was counting on to pay for the ballpark. Zion said the Fielders, the stadium site's owner and the city have been unable to agree on alternative funding. Zion maintains city money cannot be the only revenue source.
J. Delaine Rogers, Zion's recently departed economic development director, said she worked with Ehrenreich for six years to bring baseball to Zion and was among those to promote the Fielders as becoming an economic engine at a permanent stadium.
"We've tried and tried to deliver (the stadium) for Mr. Ehrenreich," Rogers said.
Baade questioned why Zion got involved with Ehrenreich given his history of problems in Schaumburg.
Ehrenreich previously owned the now-defunct Schaumburg Flyers independent league baseball team. The village of Schaumburg and the Schaumburg Park District had the Flyers evicted from the publicly owned Alexian Field in February, claiming the team owed about $920,000 in overdue rent and other payments.
Flyers ownership, per a judge's order in that case, was directed to pay $551,829 in overdue rent. Ehrenreich said the Flyers were a limited-liability corporation and don't have assets to pay the judgment.