Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Problem in Omaha

Rosenblatt Stadium - the home of the College World Series

Omaha, of course, has been the annual host of the College World Series since 1950. Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium, 5 miles south of downtown Omaha, is the country's largest minor league baseball stadium. It seats 23,145 and for 57 years has been the site of the annual College World Series. The Omaha Royals (triple-A affiliate of the Kansas City Royals) and Creighton University also use the facility. The city of Omaha is responsible for maintaining and upgrading the stadium and in 2001 alone, spent more than $7 million in repairs.

But more than $25 million in repairs are needed because of the aging of the structure and because of the changing needs of the CWS for a larger concessions area, more parking, newer locker rooms, concourses with views of the field, closer hotels, and alcohol-free zones. The city, hostile to the idea of pouring more money into Rosenblatt, has floated the idea of an entirely new stadium for $50 million, in exchange for a 10-year contract with the College World Series, Inc. in lieu of the traditional 5-year one. The new stadium would be build adjacent to the Qwest Center and Creighton University in downtown Omaha. It would be close to the amenities of downtown and have 9,000 permanent seats (all that's needed for the Royals and Creighton), but have 14,000 expandable seats for a capacity of 25,000 for the annual College World Series. Currently, Rosenblatt is mostly empty at Royals and Creighton games because of the massive size of the stadium.

The entire concept of a new stadium - and leaving Rosenblatt - has stirred a lot of criticism and served as the impetus for the creation of grass roots efforts aimed at preventing efforts to move the site downtown. A new non-profit entitled Save Rosenblatt has sprung up with the motto "Improve it, don't remove it". Former players and coaches from all over the country have been particularly vocal against a new stadium and Kevin Costner, a regular at CWS games, has even joined the fray by shooting TV commercials and giving vocal support for saving Rosenblatt. And many Omahans who do not feel a vital emotional connection to the history of Rosenblatt also oppose the cost of a new stadium because of already-high property, wheel, and income taxes.
But on the other hand...
But other locals and Mayor Fahey and the City Council are concerned that if expensive upgrades aren't made, the CWS will leave Omaha altogether, and take their money and $35 million economic impact with them [here is a podcast of Mayor Fahey discussing the options]. The experience of Kansas City several years ago is fresh on city leader's minds. It served as the headquarters for the CWS, but after failing to offer fiscally attractive options, the CWS moved its headquarters to Indianapolis.
The CWS is in agreement that a new stadium may be in its best interests, but has committed no money for its construction. Additionally, the city's contract to host the CWS expires in 2010, and rumors are floating that Indianapolis will also make a bid to host the series (however, Omaha gets first options at proposing any new contract).
So Omaha is left with 2 sticky options:
1). Save Rosenblatt and risk losing the CWS and it's annual $35 million economic impact
2). Build a new stadium and pay for it, but keep the CWS
The city absolutely cannot afford to maintain two stadiums, so if a new stadium is built, Rosenblatt will be bulldozed and the site sold to the Henry Doorly Zoo to pay off bonds for a new stadium. The cost for a new stadium, however, is projected to exceed the $50 million pricetag originally proposed by the city, and funding for it almost certainly cannot come from increased taxes.
What does Omaha do? Spend a ridiculous amount of money rehabbing an old facility and risk losing the CWS, with empty seats for the Royals and Creighton? Or build a new one, lose the memories and sentimentality from Rosenblatt, and dance on a political landmine with possible tax increases or failure to fund other projects?

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