Friday, September 09, 2016
Don't blame the people of Joplin for the Blasters failure
While it was nice to have some form of professional baseball in the city, the only way it was going to continue was obvious- Joplin taxpayers were going to have to subsidize the franchise,
To some extent, the taxpayers have already paid for this failed two-year experiment- to the tune of more than $4 million in improvements to Joe Becker Stadium to bring it up to American Association standards.
And now we will pay even more.
Now that the Blasters appear headed the way of Wallace Bajjali Development Partners, the blame is already being cast and we, the people of Joplin, are the ones who will bear the brunt of it.
After all, we had professional baseball and we didn't bother to show up.
The city's elite- the ones whose thoughts immediately turned to convention centers, combination library/movie theaters, A-list concert attractions, niche retail establishments, and fancy loft apartments, at a time when most of the city was trying to recover some sense of normalcy- decided that we had to have professional baseball.
It was one of the selling points of Texas con artist David Wallace's pitch to the Citizens Advisory Recovery Team (CART), a group that supposedly was formed out of whole cloth after the tornado, but in actuality as I spelled out in my book Silver Lining in a Funnel Cloud, the core of CART had already been meeting and determining how to push its vision for the city long before May 22, 2011.
Wallace told CART he had ties to the American Association and knew of teams that would be interested in coming to Joplin. It wasn't Wallace who ended up delivering the Blasters, formerly the El Paso Diablos, to the city, which should come as no surprise since Wallace never delivered anything to the city except never ending promises that the CART crew and some elected officials continued to believe up until the moment he skipped town.
People like Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Rob O'Brian and former City Manager Mark Rohr were laying the groundwork for professional baseball well before Wallace Bajjali came on the scene.
Rohr and O'Brian arranged for American Association President Miles Wolf to come to Joplin in 2010 to see what it would take to bring a team here.
They took Wolf to Joe Becker Stadium and gave what former Chamber official Gary Box told investigator Tom Loraine was "a dog-and-pony show."
Wolf didn't buy it. Joe Becker Stadium was not up to his league's standards, he told them. "Guys, Joplin is a great baseball community. I think we could definitely have a team here and succeed, but this facility, this ballpark doesn't cut it."
To attract an American Association team, someone was going to have to pay millions to renovate the historic stadium. Somewhere, somehow Rohr, O'Brian, and the others who were pushing this vision of what they felt Joplin should be, were going to have to convince the Joplin City Council to use tax money to bring a professional baseball team to Joplin.
After all, having a professional team would enhance the city's reputation. It would be a magnet for people who were tired of having to drive an hour and change to Springfield to watch a minor league team with a proven history of developing future St. Louis Cardinals and serving as a rehab stop for major leaguers recovering from injuries.
All of those people would be eating in Joplin restaurants, buying gas at Joplin convenience stores, and making a full day out of it by shopping at Joplin niche retail stores. Then they would go home and tell all of their friends about it and before too long Joplin would replace Springfield as the queen city of the Ozarks.
And all it would take to get the ball rolling was a few million dollars of taxpayer money to put a new face on Joe Becker Stadium.
That made it incumbent on O'Brian and Rohr to convince the Joplin City Council that the millions it would take to repair the stadium were an investment in the city's future.
What better way than to commission a feasibility study?
The study was commissioned in 2013 as Wallace was failing miserably with a plan to build a completely new stadium. A refurbishing of Joe Becker was worthless to the master developer since there was no way he could leverage any finder's fees from that arrangement.
National Community Development Services was commissioned to do the study, which immediately presented a challenge as far as the reliability of the outcome was concerned. On its website, NCDS touts its package, which includes feasibility reports and finding and conducting campaigns to help chambers of commerce and other such organizations to reach their goals.
There was never really any doubt that NCDS would determine that Joplin could sustain professional baseball.
What this process meant to Joplin was outlined in the October 12, 2015 Turner Report:
The 2013 study that convinced Joplin City Council to give the go-ahead for more than $4 million worth of construction at Joe Becker Stadium was deeply flawed and describes millions of dollars in benefits for the city by using a model that does not apply here.
The study, which was commissioned by the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce and was done by the Economic Strategy Center of Lansing, Michigan, based National Community Development Services, relies heavily on prior research that was done by Minor League Baseball MiLB and was primarily based on teams that were affiliated with major league baseball.
The study shows that no such survey was taken concentrating on independent teams such as the Joplin Blasters and their opponents in the American Association.
Those calculations led to estimates of 3,500 attendance at each game, a number that was twice the turnout for the Blasters' inaugural season. (Note: it was actually three times the average attendance.)
With the attendance diminished by that much, naturally the estimated totals for vending sales, parking, and other game-related activities were also far lower than the original estimates.
And while many Joplin area residents enjoyed watching Blasters games, the Chamber's overly optimistic assessment of the impact minor league baseball would have on Joplin could also impact the millions of future dollars the study said the city would receive via loft apartments and retail in the area of Joe Becker Stadium.
The study indicated the city would benefit from having two restaurants, office space, 16 loft apartments, and a couple of retail stores, with an initial benefit coming from the construction.
There were those who raised objections to this overly optimistic study when it was first presented, but those voices were ignored. Those were just people who were standing in the way of progress and blocking the path to the Joplin that O'Brian, Rohr, and Joplin's unelected elite were envisioning.
After the Blasters lost money during the inaugural season, the city made concessions to ensure another season of American Association baseball.
It wasn't anywhere near enough. It was throwing more money into a bad situation.
The Blasters, after fielding a competitive team in 2015, immediately began shipping away their best players and put almost no effort into promotion. Attendance dropped to only a few hundred per game.
The second season, mercifully, came to a close. The Blasters failed to pay their rent and billed the city for not coming through with its end of the deal.
And the blame game begins.
The Blasters deserve a portion of the blame, as do city officials who thought a second season of the team was preferable to putting the team out of its misery and cutting the loss of taxpayer money.
But not for one second should anyone think of casting blame on the people of Joplin for not making their way to Joe Becker Stadium and shoring up this ill-conceived venture.
Professional baseball in a city the size of Joplin was always a long shot proposition. When the Blasters made an effort to field a competitive team in 2015, more than 1,000 people showed up every night. That number was about right for Joplin and reflected what a serious study of Joplin's prospects for professional baseball would likely have shown.
To paraphrase Shakespeare, the fault, dear Brutus, was not in the lack of stars and certainly not in ourselves, but in a group of self-appointed Caesars who think only they have a vision of what Joplin should be.