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Small NY Cities Wonder Whether To Fund Stadiums

A Jackals fan watches a game during the final weekend of the season. The team wasn't included in a March sale of the arena.

Public money is often used to fund stadium upgrades. Elected officials say it builds up a local economy by attracting businesses, who want to set up nearby, and people, who spend their dollars in the city.

That claim is debated in major league cities around the country. But what about smaller cities, like Elmira and Binghamton? Could stadiums benefit those economies?

Nola Agha is a researcher at the University of San Francisco. She set out to find the impact of minor league baseball stadiums on local economies.

“The bulk of the teams actually had a neutral effect, which is nothing at all," Agha said. "There was no measurable gain, but there was no measurable loss.”

"It probably shouldn't have ever been built"

The Elmira Jackals won't be back next year. The minor league hockey team had been in the city since since 2000.

The Jackals play in First Arena, right in the heart of downtown. The Chemung County Industrial Development Agency owned it for most of the last year, but the group looked for months for a new, private owner. It was a hard sell.

In an interview with WSKG last December, the Chemung IDA’s Mike Krusen rattled off a list of repairs. “The seats need to all be replaced, the suites need to be all redone. There’s a roof that needs to be repaired at $750,000. The ice plant is a couple of million dollars.”

The IDA found a new owner, but he wanted help paying those and other bills, like fees to keep the Jackals in Elmira. The IDA offered to split some costs with the city. Elmira said it couldn’t afford them.

So, no more Jackals

First Arena was built in 2000. It’s always had private owners, except for that brief stint with the IDA.

Clearly, it didn’t jump-start Elmira’s stagnant downtown. “At the risk of sounding like a big know-it-all 15 years later, it probably shouldn’t have ever been built in a community of this size," Krusen said.

"They're magnets"

Agha’s study centered around parks like NYSEG Stadium in Binghamton. Mayor Rich David said he’s familiar with studies like Agha’s, but believes these stadiums are worth something.

“They’re magnets, they’re destinations," David explained. "You are bringing people into the city for are a specific reason and more often than not, the individual or family will spend some amount of money in the community.”

NYSEG stadium is home to the Binghamton Rumble Ponies, a Double-A minor league baseball team. The franchise has a private owner, but the stadium is owned by the Binghamton Urban Renewal Agency. In other words, the taxpayers.

Binghamton recently got $2 million from the state for several renovations.

“A lot of times someone will say, 'well, why don’t you use that money and fix $2 million worth of roads, or use that money to lower taxes or use the money for this or use the money that?'” David said.

In this case, the city can't do that. Binghamton and the Rumble Ponies applied for a grant for this specific project.

The money comes from the State and Municipal Facilities, or SAM, Program. Government watchdogs criticize this program. They say state lawmakers have too much leeway in spending the money. In this case, State Senator Fred Akshar secured the funding.

“There is no local property tax dollars going into this, no local money going into this project," said David. "Obviously there is state money, and state money is paid by the taxpayer.”

Mayor David said funding NYSEG Stadium can raise the economic boat of the surrounding area. It’s within a few blocks of downtown. But in the area around the stadium, there’s not much going on. You can count the number of restaurants on one hand.

Stadiums as community centers

There’s one more thing to consider.

Agha’s study found that Double-A baseball stadiums - in particular - in cities like Binghamton boosted local economies. These cities are not too big and not too small. Just right for a stadium to help, depending on how it’s used.

“Are they used for high school marching band competitions? And Fourth of July fireworks? And are they turned into ice skating rinks in the winter?" Agha asked. "The more [they use] a stadium the more it has potential to benefit a community.”

It could be a place for the community to gather: for a baseball game or concert or a graduation. Binghamton and Elmira might not see a fortune from their sports facilities, but they could still be worth something.