Like a Rocky Mountain high, there was no stopping the inevitable giddy comparison between Denver's Lower Downtown district, known as LoDo, and Richmond's Shockoe Bottom. During the Greater Richmond Chamber's field trip to the Mile-High City a few weeks ago, the delegation of civic and business leaders couldn't resist the link.
There are many similarities. Both historic districts are anchored by beautiful old train stations — Union Station in LoDo and Main Street Station in the Bottom — which suffered while the interstate highway system negated their commercial relevance. By the 1980s, both were considered seedy, economically depressed areas.
But there's one big difference: Denver's LoDo has a ballpark, Coors Field, home of the Colorado Rockies. Civic boosters there claim the park helped jump-start the area's economic revitalization. Considering the failed attempts to build a new ballpark in the Bottom during the last decade, and the more recent consideration by Mayor Dwight Jones to build a stadium there for the Flying Squirrels, it's hardly a surprise that our civic booster club made a point of visiting Denver's major league ballpark.
If I were the president of Denver's Lower Downtown Neighborhood Association, as Josh Davies is, I would put my best foot forward in talking about the progress that's been made in the district, particularly when touring with a group of 150 movers and shakers from Richmond.
But Davies' contention that the opening of Coors Field in 1995 served as a major catalyst for change in the area doesn't jibe. There's considerable research to the contrary. In 2003, Kevin J. Delaney, an associate professor of sociology at Temple University, and Rick Eckstein, an associate professor of sociology at Villanova University, collaborated on a book titled "Public Dollars, Private Stadiums." One of the stadiums they studied was Coors Field and its relationship to the LoDo District. Here's some of what they had to say:
"The LoDo area [had] seen a great deal of economic development in the 1990s and is now considered [in 2003] one of the trendier entertainment areas in Denver. That development, however, began well before Coors Field was built." After visiting Denver in 1999, they observed something rather interesting, they write: "LoDo development seemed to be expanding between Thirteenth and Seventeenth Street, away from Coors Field, which is centered on Twenty-First Street. Indeed the closer we got to the ballpark, the greater the noticeable decline in retail and residential activity."
The professors found that most of the restaurants in LoDo were there before Coors Field was built. Morton's The Steakhouse, which was two blocks from Coors Field, for example, opened in 1993, and did so, according to the local manager, "because LoDo was becoming trendy." Incidentally, Morton's opened in Shockoe Slip in 2002 because of the Canal Walk and the surging trendiness of the area, so there's some consistency. The authors also interviewed workers at less "upscale restaurants," who told them "that they preferred not to work on game day because their regular customers often stayed away."
In 1999, four years after Coors Field opened, Delaney and Eckstein write that "economic development [was] completely absent east of Twentieth Street." They saw four pawnshops, a few active warehouses and numerous surface parking lots, as well as abandoned warehouses, empty lots and transients. This isn't to say that development hasn't taken place since 1999, but it doesn't necessarily mean that the development had anything to do with Coors Field, either. After all, the chamber's visit was made 18 years after the stadium opened.
There's another significant difference between Denver and Richmond. In Denver, there was a referendum that included the six-county metro areas. Those jurisdictions, along with Denver, agreed to increase the sales tax by 0.1 percent in order to help finance the project. Now that's regional cooperation. And there's this: Coors Field was estimated to cost $150 million. The final cost was close to $215 million. That's a 30-percent cost overrun. If the initial cost of a Shockoe Bottom stadium is $50 million, and a similar cost overrun developed because of unforeseen infrastructure problems or the discovery of historical artifacts, the price would be $71 million. It's not only possible, it's likely: In Delaney and Eckstein's book, virtually all of the stadiums they studied went over budget.
The point: When borrowing from other cities, and their claims of success, take the time to look a little deeper. You'll find the claims made by proponents of new ballparks — developers, civic boosters and political leaders — usually are overstated.
In 2003, the original proponents of building a stadium in the Bottom, a group called the Richmond Baseball Initiative, brought to Richmond architect Frank Ricks, who designed a downtown ballpark built for the Redbirds of Memphis, Tenn. Many of the same claims were made, and the miracle in Memphis — that the stadium sparked millions of dollars in new development, they claimed — could be a guiding light.
At a public meeting on the ballpark back then, I recall asking Ricks about the economic impact of the ballpark. He admitted that there was no documentation regarding the economic impact. The so-called economic generator was the need for downtown apartments, which didn't exist in Memphis.
Another look at Memphis should offer a cautionary tale. All is not well. The Redbirds are struggling financially. In fiscal year 2011, tax filings show that the team lost $4 million. In 2009, the team missed a bond payment on the ballpark. Now, it appears the city is considering buying the ballpark to keep the team from collapsing financially.
Perhaps a trip to Memphis should be next. S
Brian Glass is a commercial real estate agent who lives in Henrico County. His views do not represent the views of his employer, Collier International / Richmond.
Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.