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Snakebit: The Diamondbacks' upgrade ultimatum

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Rogue Columnist

Snakebit: The Diamondbacks' upgrade ultimatum

As with the Suns arena, the Diamondbacks stadium never would have been built in downtown Phoenix if it weren't for the unfairly reviled Jerry Colangelo. He was the last remaining civic steward who could knock heads and write checks in the tradition of the Phoenix 40.

Other sites were proposed, including on the Glendale fringe and at 40th Street and the Red Mountain Freeway. But Colangelo saw both venues as essential to the revival of the heart of the city. It was telling that with all the old headquarters gone or going, a sports executive was the last man standing. But it was enough and both facilities played pivotal roles in saving downtown.

BOB/Chase Field is not a handsome stadium, looking more like an airplane hanger than Camden Yards, Safeco Field, or Coors Field. It led to the demolition of numerous historic structures in the Warehouse District and Chinatown, including the Arizona Citrus Growers Coop building. On the other hand, a successful archeological dig was undertaken there. And the finished product is convenient to the entire region and located on light rail (WBIYB). Significantly, its air conditioning proved that Major League baseball could succeed in Phoenix.

Now, under Managing General Partner Ken Kendrick, the Diamondbacks are demanding that the county provide $187 million in upgrades — "current and future maintenance obligations" — or the team will seek a way out of its lease and leave.

I have long suspected that Kendrick, and his Suns counterpart Robert Sarver, have longed to depart downtown for the suburbs. Neither has a deep affinity to Phoenix or commitment to the health of downtown. Kendrick was already behind the lavish Spring Training facilities on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community close to north Scottsdale. His wife, Randy, is a major right-wing money figure and both give to Koch causes and the "Goldwater" Institute — stances guaranteed to be anti-city.

The essential sports business site Field of Schemes unpacks the "ultimatum:"

In short, then, this is a shot across the county’s bow: We know we have a lease, but we think you should pay untold hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade it or maybe replace it, or else we’ll move, and if you won’t let us move, we’ll sue you. It’s the mother of all nastygrams, and like all such missives, it’s meant less to spell out legal niceties than to intimidate the recipient into talking about ways to make the issue go away. If the public discourse around the Diamondbacks’ stadium demands shifts in coming weeks from “Wait, didn’t we just build them one?” to “How much does the public have to spend to keep the team owners happy?” then you’ll know it has done its job.

This is shameful extortion by a wealthy ownership group.

My gut says that the answer from the county should not be "no," but "hell, no!" Sports oligarchs have successfully gained billions in taxpayer dollars to build their self-serving palaces across America. It's high time cities started refusing to participate in the racket, especially at a time of huge infrastructure needs thanks to decades of tax-cut religion.

Phoenix doesn't have the economy or incomes to support four big-league teams. Maricopa County's 2014 median household income was $53,689 vs. LA County's $55,870, as much as $93,500 in the Bay Area, and $66,870 in Denver. The Suns, D-Backs, Cardinals, and Coyotes have been in a death grapple for years. Only lavish taxpayer subsidies, combined with the associated sprawl hustles in Glendale, have kept the game going as long as it has.

This showed with Major League Baseball. Colangelo persuaded his partners to invest lavishly in the Diamondbacks, his strategy being that if they fielded a championship team the result would be high season-ticket sales and a long-term vibrant franchise. The gambit failed despite winning the 2001 World Series. Colangelo was eased out (with team colors changes to a league lookalike red) and he went to make money — where else — in the short hustle of sprawl.

And yet, my head worries about downtown Phoenix. I can't tell you how many people say to me that the only time they go downtown is to see the Diamondbacks or the Suns. Unlike in Denver, where MLB, NFL, NBA, and NHL all play downtown near abundant and growing rail transit, or Seattle with Safeco Field and CenturyLink side-by-side downtown, most Phoenicians have little or no connection to the city's heart.

This has been made much worse by the lack of major center-city headquarters and moneyed stewards, as well as what robust economic activity there is happening out on the fringes or in Tempe (and there relatively far from transit). Made worse by lack of civic connections and self-segregating suburbs. Soon to come: An argument echoing the Braves move from Atlanta to affluent suburban Cobb County "to be closer to our fan base."

Phoenix has already been hurt by the loss of all but one Spring Training team, and the Brewers in Maryvale hanging by a thread. Tourism and leisure are much bigger components of the economy here compared to more diverse peer metros, and Phoenix is hurt if it isn't at the table. The city already suffers from one-third of its population in severe poverty. Phoenix isn't like its peer cities, or even "normal" cities, where pro sports probably brings little economic benefit. It has special vulnerabilities and profound weaknesses.

How badly would the loss of baseball fans hurt downtown? How much would it add pollution that could be mitigated by light rail? Is ASU downtown, the convention center, and the biomedical campus enough of an economic engine? And how does this affect downtown's new-found ability to be the hub of events such as the Super Bowl? Don't expect sports moguls or suburbanites who brag about living in south Chandler (is that supposed to convey some gloating?) to provide the answers.

This is only the opening of another distressing battle to save the city.

Jon Talton is a fourth-generation Arizonan who runs the blog Rogue Columnist. He is a former op-ed and business columnist of the Arizona Republic, and retired as the economics columnist of the Seattle Times in 2019. Talton is also the author of 12 novels, including the David Mapstone Mysteries, which are set in Arizona.

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