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Was it worth it? Born of turmoil, Oriole Park a trendsetter

On Monday, baseball players will be scattered over the bright green field of Camden Yards, the darker green seats will be filled with fans in orange T-shirts — getting there early, of course — and the smells of hot dogs and chili will waft through the stadium concourse.

It will be the start of the 20th season of the Baltimore Orioles playing at beloved Oriole Park at Camden Yards, and the 20th season since the downtown bastion made an indelible mark on baseball history.

With all of the political and financial struggles to build the ballpark, the project’s original players and outside experts say the stadium was worth it. One of the project’s main opponents, however, still says Memorial Stadium could have done just as well.

To baseball fans, stadium architects and the sports industry, Camden Yards has been a gleaming model for stadiums built since its opening in 1992. Its success has been due to the fusion of a traditional ballpark feel with modern amenities, the synthesis of government, public and private sector coordination, and its allure to fans of all Major League Baseball teams.

Watch a brief history of the origins of Oriole Park

But the mecca of baseball was born of turmoil. It was transformed by the vision of civic leaders and by Edward Bennett Williams, who bought the Orioles in 1979 and fought for a true baseball park — and who wouldn’t live to see Camden Yards built.

Community groups and politicians at the time doubted the necessity of a new facility, let alone one that would house only one team back when most stadiums were built for both baseball and football. Many doubted the necessity of using taxpayer dollars to build a $106.5 million ballpark, complete with expensive club seats and luxury suites.

“I think it’s fiscally irresponsible for governments to be funding sports arenas for billionaire owners and billionaire players,” Julian L. “Jack” Lapides, who in 1987 as a state senator voted against legislation allowing the new ballpark, said this week.

Memorial Stadium, the Orioles’ home for more than 30 years, was just fine and could have been rehabilitated to suit the team’s needs, said Lapides, a Democrat whose district included Memorial Stadium.

But Williams, a high-profile Washington, D.C., attorney, refused to sign a long-term lease for his team to play at Memorial Stadium. Because of Williams’ unwillingness to sign a long-term lease and his love for all things D.C., many Baltimoreans feared the Orioles would be moved away, much as the National Football League’s Baltimore Colts were taken to Indianapolis by owner Robert Irsay in the middle of night on March 29, 1984, or the National Basketball Association’s Baltimore Bullets were moved to Landover in 1973 and then to Washington in 1997 after changing their name to the Wizards.

Keeping a professional sports team and supporting it with a new stadium is worth it to a city, said Jeffrey Standen, a law professor at Willamette University in Salem, Ore., who teaches sports and gaming law. While building a stadium may cost more than what the city or state will earn back in revenue, the availability of a sports team in a town far outweighs the financial cost, he said.

More than 54 million visitors have come to Camden Yards since it opened, according to the Orioles.

“It’s more like a public good,” Standen said. “Like a park or a library or a municipal golf course — those are things cities are willing to subsidize. But a ballpark helps that picture of overall well-being in the area.”

Ballpark costs have skyrocketed since Camden Yards’ construction. Progressive Field in Cleveland and the Ballpark in Arlington, the next two MLB stadiums to open after Camden Yards, in 1994, cost $175 million and $191 million. At the top of the pile, New York’s Citi Field and Yankee Stadium, which both opened in 2009, cost $900 million and $1.5 billion. Target Field in Minneapolis, which opened last season, cost $545 million.

But Camden Yards’ price was worth it, said Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. Orioles’ officials made a persuasive case for building a new ballpark because it helped the team’s bottom line, he said. The team was able to bring in more visitors and revenue by being competitive in the 1990s and the new stadium made it easier for fans to travel from Washington, D.C., and Virginia before Washington gained its own baseball team in 2005.

“The Orioles’ revenue went up $30 million in the first year,” Zimbalist estimated. “This was a model that made sense logically, and it made sense in practice. I’m not sure either of those things are true for the modernistic stadium. Right now, it’s hard to imagine a private investment justifying that kind of expenditure, and public treasuries wouldn’t have the funding.”

The privately-owned Orioles don’t release revenue figures.

Williams, who died in 1988 after battling cancer, argued that with Memorial Stadium’s 53,500 seats, nearly 18,000 of them in the upper deck, games couldn’t sell out. The stadium’s upper deck was steeper, and many seats were behind columns. The stands were farther from the field, 65 feet away from first and third bases, compared to 45 feet at Camden Yards.

The new stadium would have 72 luxury suites, initially leasing for $55,000 to $95,000 annually, and 18,000 lower and terrace box seats.

Economic impact

More than 3.5 million fans attended Orioles home games, including 67 sellouts, in 1992. More than 180,000 Boog’s barbecue sandwiches were sold that season and 14,200 visitors took tours of the newest ballpark in the league.

Fan expenditures on tickets, concessions, souvenirs, parking, lodging and other travel-related expenses created $117 million in gross sales, $44 million in employee income and more than 1,500 full-time jobs in 1992, according to the Maryland Stadium Authority, the state agency that paid for and supervised the construction of Camden Yards.

Statewide, the economic impact amounted to more than $226 million in sales alone that year. In 2006, the last time an economic impact study was done on stadium attendance, Orioles games brought in $166.9 million in sales and wages to Maryland, according to the Maryland Stadium Authority.

The formula for the lease between the stadium authority and the Orioles is complicated. Rent for the park equals 7 percent of net admissions revenue plus a percentage of concessions, parking, advertising and club-level admissions.

From 1992 through 2009, the Orioles’ average annual rent was about $4.5 million. The agency has collected more than $111 million in rent since the park opened, according to stadium authority Chief Financial Officer David A. Raith.

The stadium authority also receives 80 percent of a 10 percent state admissions tax. From 1993 through 2010, the annual payment averaged about $4.2 million, and a total of $74 million had been collected as of last June. Because the state paid for the construction of the stadium, much of that money went toward paying the state’s debt.

Baltimore pays $1 million annually toward the stadium debt because the city did not pay upfront for construction costs, according to state law. The city will continue to pay through the end of the lease in 2021.

But the $105 million price wasn’t the only cost involved in the new ballpark. About $48.2 million was spent on roads, including the building of access ramps into the stadium parking lots and the resurfacing of roads. Another $3.2 million was spent to move railroad tracks, including MARC and CSX lines that run alongside the adjacent B&O Warehouse, which contains team offices and businesses.

Also in those costs was the interest on the $155 million in revenue bonds sold by the stadium authority. The agency will be paying interest on the bonds for another 10 years, for a total of 30 years. That total interest cost is $261.5 million.

Business spin off

Businesses flocked to the ballpark area even before it opened. Fan favorite Pickles Pub opened in 1988 in anticipation of the new ballpark. Sliders Bar and Grill and the Camden Pub opened in 1990. The former Baja Beach Club had reported the ballpark was one of the reasons developers chose the downtown location; it said business was up 15 percent on game days in 1992.

In retrospect, even Lapides said he can’t help but be amazed by the architecture of the ballpark and the integration of the B&O Warehouse. Even though some community members and businesses wanted the warehouse torn down, Lapides said he was glad the building was saved.

“I like the stadium, I love the team, I think they did an excellent job on the ballpark,” Lapides said.

Alison L. Asti, an associate judge for Anne Arundel County Circuit Court, spent many years working for the stadium authority.

“How could it not be worth it?” she said. Between then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer’s vision for Baltimore’s downtown area, and Williams’ patience to get the stadium just right, all parties involved wanted the ballpark to be the best it could possibly be for fans, she said.

Businesses displaced

The Camden Yards site comprises 85 acres, bounded by Camden Street on the north, Russell Street on the west, Ostend Street on the south and Interstate 395 and Howard Street on the east. Twenty-four businesses — and one public school — in the area had to be relocated. Properties had to be acquired. Most of the land was under contract by September 1989 and acquired by May 1990 at a total price of $99 million.

More than 900 employees and 1,100 students were affected by the relocation, the stadium authority said.

“It was tough,” said Nolan H. Rogers, historian for the Maryland Stadium Authority, who handled the condemnation of some of the industrial properties. “One of my clerk’s friends had a pipe business that I had to pick up and relocate.”

Many of the relocated businesses later closed on their own because of financial problems, or were bought out by larger companies.

To minimize the impact, the stadium authority worked with then-called Baltimore Economic Development Corp. and what was known then as the Maryland Department of Economic and Employment Development to relocate all the properties within city limits.

All but two businesses stayed within the city — Southern Seafood moved to Reisterstown Road in Pikesville, and RETS Technical Training Center relocated to South Caton Avenue, where it still operates.