Opinion: 30 years later, Salt Lake’s Ballpark neighborhood never hit a home run
Former Mayor Deedee Corradini promised a stadium that would lead to economic development. What the city got was a charming ballpark in the middle of a neighborhood that hasn’t changed much in 30 years
Thirty years ago this May, Deedee Corradini, the mayor of Salt Lake City at the time, told me her vision for the site on West Temple and 1300 South, where she planned a modern minor league baseball stadium.
“I envision 10 years from now the stadium will define the south end of downtown,” she said. “If we can get commercial retail in around there, restaurants will start spinning off.”
You don’t need any special expertise to know that didn’t happen — not in 10 years or in 30. A few high-density housing projects have recently sprung up north of the stadium. Lucky 13, a bar and grill, is down the street, as is a Lowe’s and a Walmart. These don’t really qualify as economic development, nor do they have much to do with baseball. They seem more like the natural amenities tied to a growing city in the nation’s fastest growing state.
The surroundings for the site, which had already been home to a stadium called Derks Field for decades, doesn’t look much different than it did then.
But now, the triple-A baseball team that Corradini fought so hard to get for her new stadium is moving to South Jordan, to a stadium the Larry H. Miller Company will build in the rapidly growing Daybreak community. The future of what now is known as Smith’s Ballpark is uncertain.
There are lessons to draw from this. The first is to beware of public officials who try to sell sports stadiums as catalysts for economic growth. I have a thick file folder full of studies that throw water on those promises in city after city, and more such studies keep coming.
One from 2020, by Nola Agha of the University of San Francisco, studied census data over time to track economic development in relation to 871 cities with new stadiums of all sorts. “Nearly all results from hundreds of models are insignificantly different from zero,” the study’s abstract said.
That’s what the experts told me 30 years ago, as well. A minor-league baseball team is just another small business with seasonal jobs.
With some exceptions.
One of those experts was Arthur T. Johnson, a professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, who said stadiums work best if they are downtown and part of a larger development project intended to draw people in for entertainment.
Or, as he wrote in his book, “Minor League Baseball and Local Economic Development,” “If new development is the goal, more is needed than building a stadium in the middle of a corn field and waiting for business to grow around it.”
Smith’s Ballpark isn’t exactly in a corn field, but the irony was that Corradini didn’t want the stadium there. She wanted it downtown. Her first choice was Pioneer Park, and she was trying to get the Olympic speed-skating oval across the street. Combined with the Jazz arena down the road, this would have made for a sports corridor in the heart of the city.
But the opposition, from the Greek Orthodox Church nearby and from advocates for the poor, among others, forced her hand.
I take some responsibility for this. When Corradini wanted a downtown stadium, city officials kept telling me the neighbors of the old park were tired of the noise and traffic during games. So, I went door to door, asking if this was true. It wasn’t. I couldn’t find anyone who wanted it gone. I found plenty who wanted it to stay.
One woman complained that she might not be able to sell her house someday without the amenity of a stadium. Another, who lived just past center field, said the stadium lights helped her husband do yard work late into the night.
So, no, Salt Lake City didn’t get the ideal spot for a stadium that could attract restaurants and commercial development. But it did get a charming neighborhood ballpark with a fantastic view. Its architects, HOK, had just designed Baltimore’s Camden Yards, an innovative baseball stadium that incorporated early 20th century stadium elements into a modern ballpark, and they did the same on a smaller scale for Salt Lake.
It made for a place that evoked nostalgia, smack in the middle of a neighborhood. Small wonder the ballpark has regularly made lists of best minor league stadiums in the country.
And maybe that’s the other lesson. The success of a publicly funded stadium can’t be measured in taxes and spinoffs alone.
From what has been revealed, the Larry H. Miller Company seems to have good ideas for the new stadium, making it an anchor for a larger development. It will be built with private funds.
The company has also promised to help Salt Lake City “reimagine the neighborhood” surrounding Smith’s Ballpark. That includes a $100 million public-private investment in the area, announced by Mayor Erin Mendenhall on Tuesday, with the Gail Miller Family Foundation, Zions Bank, Intermountain Healthcare and the city as founding partners.
That’s good news, because despite the drama surrounding its construction 30 years ago, what Corradini ended up with will be hard to replace.