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What Buffalo can learn from Baltimore’s downtown football stadium

On game day, white-and-blue rail cars pull into a platform at M&T Bank Stadium, home of the Baltimore Ravens.

Football fans arrive from as far as Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport nine miles to the south and Baltimore’s Penn Station three miles to the north, where riders connect from Amtrak or the regional transit line. And they come in droves.

More than 11,000 football fans use light rail on game day Sundays. Not having to drive to games is critical in Baltimore, because despite a stadium seating capacity of 71,044, there are just 5,000 parking spaces at the stadium – half what Ralph Wilson Stadium holds.

M&T Bank Stadium and Oriole Park at Camden Yards, where the Orioles play baseball, are often looked to as success stories, and the football stadium could offer useful lessons for Buffalo if a new football stadium is built downtown.

A study released in January identified three potential downtown locations, all close to the waterfront and about a mile from the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. Baltimore’s downtown football stadium, which opened in 1998, is close to the popular Inner Harbor and an emerging medical campus propelled by Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland.

Among Baltimore’s lessons:

• Make mass transit a priority.

• Be flexible with parking. M&T Bank Stadium, with just 5,000 parking spots of its own, proves a less-sprawling downtown footprint is possible.

• Schedule non-team events to keep the site active.

• Don’t hype the potential economic benefit of a stadium. A stadium can be justified for the intangible, civic pride it brings. But a football stadium will be a dead zone most of the year.

Like the Bills, the Ravens attract die-hard fans.

“When the Ravens are playing, it has a magical effect on this community. I don’t think you can discount that dynamic, particularly in a city like Buffalo or Baltimore where we’re always worried about being seen as big league,” said Mark Wasserman, senior vice president of the University of Maryland Medical System.

Wasserman served as chief of staff to then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer in the 1980s, when efforts for the baseball stadium were underway.

The sports teams influence Baltimore in ways that can’t be measured on a spread sheet.

“It has a real resonance, and it matters,” he said. “It’s not all about economics, and I think in the end you have to conclude that.”

Costs and benefits

For fans in Baltimore, a chasm of emotions spans the bronzed football statues of quarterback Johnny Unitas and linebacker Ray Lewis, standing side-by-side outside M&T Bank Stadium.

There was the heartbreak that resulted when the Baltimore Colts, a storied NFL franchise lifted by the Hall of Famer Unitas, moved to Indianapolis in 1983.

It wasn’t until 13 years later that the Cleveland Browns – renamed the Baltimore Ravens – relocated to a space carved from Oriole Park’s parking lot.

During Lewis’ 17 years in Baltimore, the Ravens won two Super Bowls and gained the adoration of a devoted fan base.

But the team’s arrival came with a price.

The public – after heated civic debate – picked up $210 million of the $234 million tab.

Feelings were mixed at first, Wasserman said.

“Everyone was unsettled about this,” Wasserman said of taking another city’s team. “More than any other place in the country, we understood some of the angst here. But – and this is probably glib – after being in the desert for years, there was a thirst for an NFL franchise that was strong,” Wasserman said.

Today, the once gritty industrial area seems scrubbed clean of its past. The baseball stadium in 2014 drew 2.4 million fans while the Ravens stadium sold out its eight regular-season games, drawing 568,352 people.

But the economic benefits that boosters said would lift up blighted neighborhoods and the jobs it would add failed to materialize. Zip codes around Baltimore’s stadiums saw a 7.8 percent drop in the number of businesses from 1998 to 2011. And a struggling area known as Pigtown, just west of the football stadium, saw its percentage of properties under mortgage foreclosure leap from fifth to second between 2000 and 2011.

Transit tailgating

The Hamburg Street/Stadium stop on South Howard Street, which serves the football stadium, is one of 33 stops along the 27-mile-long light-rail track running north to south.

An average of 11,274 people used the station on Ravens game days from two hours before kickoff to one hour after the game in 2013, according to the Maryland Transit Administration.

Think of it as tailgating, mass transit-style.

“The light rail has a festive feel on Ravens game days. People are in their purple-and-black jerseys, singing songs, telling stories,” said Paul Shepard, the transit administration’s spokesman.

“This town has a love affair with its Ravens that is really deep, and light rail has become sort of the way people get there. It’s a lot of season ticket-holders who know each other, and the ride builds as it goes along. It’s like a rolling Ravens event until it gets to the stadium,” he said.

Shepard emphasized the importance mass transit can have on game day to a city like Buffalo.

“Between light rail, the local bus and where the stations are situated, we have a lot of good ways for people to get to the stadium that don’t involve taking their car. If you have good access via public transportation, that parking option isn’t quite as important, especially when downtown spaces are at a premium,” Shepard said.

Cars coming off nearby parkways and interstate highways can still find their way to parking spaces. A new casino just south of the stadium added 4,500 nearby parking spaces. Some 10,000 or so spaces are in nearby parking ramps, with hotels glad to reap the $30 to $40 per-car collected on game day at their parking garages.

Other events

David Raith, chairman of the Maryland Sports Administration, works out of the warehouse’s fifth floor. He has seen how the football stadium and neighboring streets are awash in team colors for each season’s eight regular season and two exhibition games.

“Typically, the biggest question with a football stadium comes down to why you’re building it for 10 times a year,” Raith said. “Why is the local government or the state government wanting to make that big of an investment for that?”

So the Maryland Sports Authority, which owns both stadiums, books additional events, from concerts and college football games to international soccer and community events, like high school games.

Raith showed a list of 52 non-football events held in the past eight years, through 2013. That’s six or seven events a year. That leaves the cavernous stadium idle 348 days a year on average.

The stadium’s club level gets more use, Raith said, with banquets, wedding receptions, bat mitzvahs, proms and holiday events bringing 150 to 200 events to the building.

Crowded bars

When the stadium holds big events, fans also head to nearby Federal Hill for the bars and restaurants along Light and Charles streets.

The gentrified neighborhood of mostly three-story brick row houses – east and mostly south of the football stadium, a little more than a half mile away – is the closest area to the stadium to find bars and restaurants.

“There is a line out the door before the game, and afterward it comes right back,” said Patrick Dahlgren, owner of the Rowhouse Grille. “You can’t find a seat for an hour before and an hour after the game. It’s great for the neighborhood.”

Despite residency parking, some of the mostly young professionals who live in the city complain of cars taking parking spaces, and they have grown weary of the game-day, alcohol-fueled invasions of favored neighborhood haunts.

The chained-owned restaurants, shops and bars that dominate the Inner Harbor are more than a mile from the football stadium – just far enough away to attract only a limited number of fans on game day.

“We have more baseball fans, by about 1,000 percent. If there’s a big rivalry, like the Steelers, it will bring a lot of business. But the football stadium itself is just far enough away, especially during the winter when it’s 20 degrees,” said Rodney Colbert, general manager of the Cheesecake Factory.

“When it’s umpteen degrees and snowing, people aren’t really dying to be on the waterfront,” Colbert said with a laugh.

Don’t oversell

Raith said Baltimore residents heard too many promises about what a new football stadium would bring.

“I think a lot of times when you’re trying to get projects put together, there are hopes that are put out there just in order, in my mind, to kind of sell the project. But if you don’t live up to them at the end of the day, you’ll get the backlash out of it,” Raith said.

The lack of community improvements in neighborhoods like Pigtown and Sharp-Leadenhall left some bitter.

“There was the mentality that we had this big business owner coming in, and there was going to be this spread of wealth to everyone around the facility. I don’t think a lot of people understand that sports is a business, and it’s not a charity,” Raith said.

Dennis Coates, a University of Maryland economics professor, grew up as a Colts fan in the Wyoming County town of Warsaw.

“Is there a rationale for building a sports stadium based on economic benefits such as tax revenue increases, job creation and income growth? There isn’t,” Coates said. “There’s just no evidence for those sorts of things. And as a professional economist, my view is, if we are going to make an argument for specific public policy, we should make it on the merits of the case, and not something that is just not true.

Coates cited the part of Baltimore that gets the most activity on game day.

“If you look at Federal Hill, there are all these bars and restaurants near the stadium, and they absolutely do a bigger business. But without the stadium, people would have been going out to the bars and restaurants anyway. So the money they are spending is just reallocated spending,” he said.

The same is true about money spent on game day.

“The only way you get new spending is people from outside the area coming in, but on the other hand, people from here go to games out of town, so that’s kind of a wash,” he said.

Coates made a comparison to Western New York to make the case that the economic benefits after moving the Orioles from Memorial Stadium to Camden Yards were negligible.

“One might say that if you take the stadium out of Orchard Park and put it in downtown Buffalo, that’s Orchard Park’s loss, and downtown Buffalo’s gain. But Orchard Park is still within the metropolitan area, so it’s a zero-sum game,” Coates said.

Who pays?

Disagreements remain in Baltimore over the role the public should be asked to play in paying for a sports stadium. It’s something likely to happen in Buffalo if a downtown football stadium moves forward.

The public needs to understand the full cost of what’s being paid for – and what’s not, said former state Sen. Julian “Jack” Lapides, an Orioles fan who once helped lead the fight against public financing of Camden Yards.

“I don’t think public dollars should build stadiums for billionaire owners and millionaire ballplayers,” Lapides said. “If you’re spending on a stadium, you’re not spending on schools or the arts or social services.

“Other than 10 times a year or so, you have a big abandoned parking lot and a stadium sitting there that produces nothing and costs you a fortune,” he said. “I think they did a good job here in Baltimore with both of the facilities architecturally, but they’re really dead space. It really hasn’t helped the neighborhoods.”

Wasserman, the former mayoral aide in Baltimore, said whether the public should pay for a stadium is a legitimate policy debate.

In Baltimore, you can’t overlook the intangible, emotional pull the teams have on the community, he said.

Wasserman said he is aware the Bills enjoy a similar popularity in Buffalo.

“I’m not a shill for professional sports franchises, but I’ve always been struck by how deep the emotional ties are to these sports teams,” Wasserman said. “There is no resentment in Maryland to that stadium. You’d probably have to go a long way to find critics on the street who would even admit they had reservations about it.”

email: msommer@buffnews.com

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