SportsBiz: A facelift for LoDo

Colorado Rockies Baseball Ltd. will contribute $125 million to fund maintenance and improvements

Here’s a sentence you never expected to read:

Coors Field is getting old.

Yet it’s true, sports fan. The house that revived Denver’s Lower Downtown neighborhood turned 22 in April. Since its original Opening Day in 1995, Coors Field has played host to more than 1,700 regular season baseball games that have drawn more than 60 million ticket-holders. That translates to an imposing level of usage: millions of escalator rides, millions of twirls of the turnstiles and an unfathomable pile of outcast peanut shells. I’m applying some educated guessing here, but it’s a fair bet the toilets at Coors Field have been flushed more than 90 million times (you do the math).

Turns out that time, even baseball time, really does pass quickly. If you’re among the locals who can remember the debut of Major League Baseball in Colorado not so long ago, you might be stunned to realize Coors Field is the third-oldest park in the National League, trailing only Chicago’s venerable Wrigley Field and Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. Atlanta’s Turner Field, two years younger than Coors Field, was abandoned by the Atlanta Braves after last season, succeeded by a glistening new ballpark 10 miles north of downtown Atlanta. In Arlington, where the American League’s Texas Rangers inaugurated Globe Life Park Field in 2004, a new ballpark is scheduled to open in 2020.

Similarly, the grand dame of LoDo, to be delicate, is in need of some upkeep. Evaluations commissioned by the Rockies and Colorado’s Metropolitan Baseball Stadium District came to similar conclusions: It will cost around $200 million to keep the building in ship-shape for another 30 years. Most of the work is of the pedestrian variety, District spokesman Matt Sugar says. “You’re not talking a lot of bells and whistles,” he says. “You’re talking expansion joists and plumbing fixtures.”

The Rockies, who lease the building from the District, think it’s worth the cost. And in truth, there’s not much leeway otherwise, short of the nuclear option of moving to another city.  In the view of both the Rockies and the District, the appetite for public financing of a new ballpark, once a prevailing financial model, is close to nil. “The district and the owner really didn’t want to go back to the taxpayer,” Sugar says. Nor is there any pressing reason to conclude Coors Field has seen its day from an aesthetic standpoint. Nestled into its LoDo digs, the building remains an iconic symbol of civic renewal.

Instead, Colorado’s keeping Coors Field exactly where it is for another 30 years. A new agreement reached between the team’s ownership and the District in late March puts the burden for capital improvements entirely on the Rockies. Colorado Rockies Baseball Ltd. will contribute $125 million to fund maintenance and improvements while it boosts its annual payments to $2.5 million a year from the previous $1 million. Most of that $125 million chunk will be paid over the next 10 years, enabling more investment up front.

If this sounds like a sweet deal for taxpayers, it is, but there’s also a big carrot for the team that counterbalances the relationship. The new lease comes with an arrangement for handing over control of a high-potential slab of LoDo real estate to the Rockies for 99 years. Right now, the District-owned space is a parking lot (situated just south of the ballpark, next to Jackson’s Sports Bar). Going forward, the gambit is to turn the surface space into … something. Rockies owner Dick Monfort has mentioned a Rockies-themed hall of fame as one possible element, but the bigger idea could be a commercial play in line with retail/entertainment complexes that are popping up around major sports facilities like the Staples Center in Los Angeles or the Ballpark Village residential/retail complex adjoining Busch Stadium in St. Louis.

Whatever the decision turns out to be, there’s going to be pressure on the Rockies to deliver on an entrepreneurial vision to make the numbers work on the new mega-lease. The deal effectively thrusts the team into the role of real estate developer with zoning authority to build as many as eight stories on the site. Given Denver’s red-hot development market, it seems like an easy way to make money. But the cyclical quality of the development sector could present the Rockies with a different picture down the road. In any event, Rockies fans aren’t purely passive bystanders here. Economic success in professional sports often translates to bigger player payrolls. If the team can hit a home run with its development initiative, it’s possible the same result may occur with satisfying frequency across the street at Coors Field.

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