What should taxpayers demand in new baseball district?


Major League Baseball expansion is an “inevitability,” ESPN reports, with Nashville and Salt Lake City currently at the top of the list for new franchises. The Utah Legislature has already approved a baseball district bill that would give up to $900 million in state funding to the construction of a major league stadium.

This thing is happening. Utah could very well be getting an MLB team, with an associated sports and entertainment district surrounding a new stadium.

On the one hand, this is quite exciting! I look forward to baseball in Utah. On the other hand, it’s incredibly disappointing our tax dollars are being used in this way.

But with taxpayer investment comes taxpayer say.

The fairpark project will be governed by a five-person board largely appointed by taxpayer representatives, with two people appointed by Utah’s Governor (one of whom must be a member of the West Side Coalition), one person each by Utah’s speaker of the House and president of the Senate, and one person appointed Salt Lake City’s government. These are the folks who will be making big decisions at the site.

Last week, I visited The Battery in Atlanta, the site of the Atlanta Braves’ new ballpark and the primary model for what the Miller family and Utah are trying to do at the Power District on Salt Lake City’s west side. (One of the Millers’ first moves in chasing an MLB team was to partner with Minneapolis-based Mortenson Construction, the group that built The Battery.) There, I saw perhaps the closest thing to the completed version of the Miller group’s vision. I learned about its pros and cons.

Let me show you what that was like — and tell you my wish list for Utah’s baseball district.

The model

The Battery is about 10 miles outside of Atlanta’s downtown. There, the 60-acre development stands out a bit among the surrounding office parks and smaller construction. (The Power District’s location, at about North Temple and Redwood Road, is much closer to SLC’s downtown.)

Those 60 acres — about six Salt Lake City square blocks — are comprised of office, residential, retail and entertainment buildings, all leading toward the Braves’ baseball stadium, which seats just over 41,000 fans.

A map of The Battery in Atlanta

For Utahns, I think the closest comparison is The Gateway. Like The Gateway, The Battery has a splash pad for kids, an artificial-grass lawn gathering space, a brick-lined main street with various retail storefronts, two levels in certain parts of the district, and big commercial and residential buildings surrounding the center. The two also both have a concert venue and movie theater on the premises.

The biggest differences: The Battery caters more to a game day crowd with more of its space dedicated to restaurants and bars. It contains an Omni Hotel immediately adjacent to the ballpark. The Battery also does a better job of stacking its residential apartments directly on top of the retail locations, which, to me, ties the district together a bit better. There’s a distinct baseball flair throughout; they use ballpark seats in some of their patio dining setups, which is fun.

Ballpark seats and a small amount of outdoor dining space at The Battery in Atlanta.

When I visited on a random February weekday afternoon, The Battery wasn’t exactly bustling, but it wasn’t as empty as The Gateway typically is. They reported an estimated 10 million visitors to the site in 2022, attendees to Braves games represented about a third of that at 3.1 million.

I suspect this was due to the larger amount of office space nearby — The Battery is Papa John’s global headquarters and Comcast’s regional headquarters, among other big tenants.

The Power District will also have something neither The Battery nor The Gateway can offer: natural water features. The renderings make heavy use of the Jordan River running through the district.

What I’d like to see in The Power District

Overall, The Battery is a good model for what the Power District can be. If it ends up being similar, I think it’ll be really well received by Utahns, at least by the masses who don’t care about the taxation picture.

But the experience also taught me a few things about what I’d like to see in Utah’s version.

Affordable rent — for residents and businesses

There is a significant shortage of affordable housing in both Salt Lake City and Utah overall. The Power District project should include real efforts, not just a head nod towards, creating affordable living for thousands of local residents.

Likewise, The Battery works on non-game days in large part because its rents were low enough to attract a large number of corporate offices to the project, even in the wake of the pandemic and work-from-home movement. As a result, people are there at both day and night, creating a larger sense of vibrancy.

Under taxpayer influence, The Power District should work to maximize the benefit it can do for the maximum number of people, not to maximize rental income for its owners.

More local options

The Battery has a ton of different restaurant options, which is great. They’re also mostly national chains, which is not as great. While that’s typical of suburban dining, I think it costs The Battery some serious authenticity points.

I want the options at the Power District to be a better reflection of Salt Lake City’s dining scene, and in particular, of the west side’s culture. There should be efforts made to include and promote one-off restaurants from local restauranteurs and even mom-and-pop novel efforts. Diversity of restaurant type is going to be important here; an abundance of cookie-cutter American spots serving hamburgers and pizza isn’t going to cut it.

Outdoor alcohol

While I’m dreaming: The Battery allows open containers of beer and alcohol, so long as the beverage is purchased on those grounds. As a result, many of the restaurants had walk-up to-go windows, where patrons could purchase a drink and continue on their way to the stadium.

Is that likely in the Power District? It is not. But am I including it in my wishlist? Yes I am. It is nice to drink a beer and walk around. Maybe by 2030, we can give Utah’s alcohol drinkers the right to be treated like adults.

Community events

In January, the Braves hosted Braves Fest — a weekend meant to promote the team and The Battery to local fans. There were autograph sessions, a fashion show, a pep rally, a gala, and more. Fans spoke really positively about the event.

(Lynsey Weatherspoon | The New York Times) Baseball fans at Truist Park near Atlanta for the Atlanta Braves home opener against the Philadelphia Phillies, on Friday, April 9, 2021.

As much as humanly possible, the Miller group and the potential new baseball team, need to work to welcome Utahns to the district when there aren’t ballgames going on. The Jazz did a lot of community outreach during the Millers’ ownership. Those efforts will need to be multiplied by a novel baseball team that hasn’t yet created an emotional connection with fans.

Parking

Parking is ridiculously expensive at The Battery, and Utah taxpayers shouldn’t stand for high parking costs at the Power District given their $900 million investment in the project.

On non-game days at The Battery, parking is free for the first two hours, but then jumps up to $10 for stays of longer than two hours, incrementally rising $5 per hour until a daily maximum of $50. But on game days, parking starts at a whopping $25. If a game goes more than 3 hours, parking is $40. If games last more than 4 hours — certainly possible — it’s $50. Oof.

In comparison, The Gateway’s daily maximum is $7. They charge $20 for game-day parking on Delta Center event days.

Planners for the Power District say they want to put most of the parking for the ballpark underground, like at the Gateway, but said they haven’t decided how much to charge. I also hope that the Power District copies The Battery’s covered bike parking options, especially given the proximity to the Jordan River Parkway.

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