Last week, after some kind of top-level strategizing, the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance — with the encouragement of Mayor Steve Bach — unveiled an online poll to take the local pulse concerning a new downtown baseball stadium for the Sky Sox.
Really. Facing a decision so vital to plans for revitalizing downtown Colorado Springs, our next step was ... an unscientific Internet poll. In other words, that made it cheaper. Not just in cost, but in real value.
Many people are clamoring now for a downtown ballpark, insisting that it's the single most important ingredient to a brighter future for our city. And yet, they appear willing to stake its future — at least, the short-term momentum toward making something happen — on a weak little poll.
Wrong idea, folks. Not the way to move forward.
If the results don't turn out as proponents hope, they can dismiss the poll as an incorrect indicator — which is the absolute truth. Of course, if the outcome shows mixed feelings, that could be legitimate, yet still be tossed aside.
Let's try a different way, with simple questions that beg for answers: Exactly what does Colorado Springs need most?
What we need most, if you ask me, is a lot more good-quality jobs. That would strengthen the local economy and translate into many more people with disposable income to spend on baseball and other entertainment.
Until we turn around the job market, attracting more companies and supporting startup efforts, do we really have enough people and businesses with the means — yes, money — to support a ballpark and everything that would go with it?
From this view, that answer today is uncertain at best, and most likely a no. With a rejuvenated economy, that could change. But we can't use that "rejuvenated" word yet. We're hopeful, we want to be optimistic, we're trying to be proactive — but we're not rejuvenated. More like treading water, with such a shaky outlook for military spending and defense contracting.
Here's my point: If we say the ballpark would be our instant cure-all catalyst, we're saying everything else is fine. We're saying we have sufficient fans and corporate support to guarantee a downtown stadium would be an immediate hit, evolving into a long-lasting success story.
Can we truthfully say all that?
Entering this week, the Sky Sox were averaging 4,724 attendees per home game so far this season, ranking 10th in the 16-team Pacific Coast League. That's not enough to make a downtown stadium succeed. And it's not realistic to count on tourists to help fill the seats. They can go to a ballgame anywhere. They can only see Pikes Peak and Garden of the Gods, or an Olympic museum, here.
We also should look more closely at other ballparks in city centers. For example, our leaders talk of emulating Oklahoma City with its 13,000-seat Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark, which opened in 1998. But after flourishing for seven or so years, the Bricktown Ballpark's attendance has gone downhill, falling from 542,000 (or 7,744 a game) in 2005 to 378,877 (or 5,262 a game) in 2011, with only a slight rebound since then. So with a superb, mature stadium, Oklahoma City can't average half-full.
It's a similar story in Memphis, where attendance at 13-year-old AutoZone Park (capacity 14,384) has eroded from more than 10,000 a game in 2005 to 6,954 in 2012.
That should be more cause for concern than how we'd pay for a downtown ballpark. In fact, the financial part doesn't seem so insurmountable when you hear about developers salivating over what they could do with the area surrounding a stadium. And though the Sky Sox owners have full title to their current stadium and surrounding property (i.e., no debt service), they could rake in a huge windfall by selling it to investors who crave such a location in the Powers Boulevard corridor.
What the Sky Sox have discovered in their 25 years here is that the front office has to work exhaustively, and promote the product endlessly, to turn a modest profit.
Could that blossom into a new, permanent success story in a downtown ballpark? We certainly need more than an unscientific poll to justify taking that gamble.