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Stadiums are usually bad deals for cities. Kansas City unions want the Royals' to be an exception

A large baseball stadium sits behind a manicured lawn. A large sign reads "KC 1985, 2015 World Champions."
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
The Royals hope to replace the 50-year-old Kauffman Stadium with a new facility. Workers want to make sure the stadium is union built and run.

The Kansas City Royals want a new stadium, and area labor groups see it as inevitable. Trade unions want the stadium to be 100% union built, and labor groups are fighting for an agreement that makes sure it benefits workers and the community.

The Kansas City Royals opened their 2023 season with a losing streak and a dream — not for a record over .500, but for a new stadium.

For labor groups, it’s not a matter of whether a new stadium will happen, but how. Tens of thousands of jobs are on the line for trade unions. And members of Stand Up KC, a coalition of low-wage workers fighting for better pay and working conditions, want the Royals to sign on to an agreement that makes sure people working in and around the stadium after it’s built have well paying, union jobs and affordable housing.

“It's not question of ‘Will it transform the city?’ It will, but will it transform the city for good or bad?” says Terrence Wise, a fast-food restaurant worker and organizer with Stand Up KC. “I think folks can get caught up in the Royals new baseball stadium, but it's about lives.”

A location hasn’t been announced, and while team owner John Sherman has declared his intent for a downtown stadium, the Royals have also teased moving out of Kansas City, but still close to downtown.

Economists say subsidizing professional sports stadiums is a waste, but the Royals want Jackson County residents to extend the sales tax they already pay for the stadium. The team would seek a similar arrangement if it moves to a different county and could seek other incentives or a tax increase from a new city.

"Built with the hands of union labor"

Since Kauffman Stadium opened in April 1973, the Sheet Metal Air Rail and Transportation Workers Union Local 2 has touched nearly every part of Kauffman Stadium — from the crown above the scoreboard to the kitchens and HVAC.

Business manager Greg Chastain remembers working on a suite in the stadium during the early 1990s, when he was still a rank-and-file member.

“For the most part, especially on the large projects, it's been our membership that has done their work,” Chastain says. “And I think that the quality shows. The Royals organization can be extremely proud of the facility that they have that was built with the hands of union labor.”

Jim Rowland, executive director of the Jackson County Sports Authority Complex, says the stadium was completely built by unions in ‘73 and when the stadium underwent substantial renovations in 2009.

Chastain wants it to stay that way for the new ballpark.

“We're willing for our members to show up every day, work hard with zero work stoppages, and in return, we want a 100% union project,” he says.

Sparks fly while a person wearing a welding mask uses a torch to weld two pieces of metal together
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Fourth-year student Parker Dechman works on a project at Sheet Metal Workers Local 2. Business Manager Greg Chastain wants to make sure people like him are contracted to work on the new stadium.

Although he has a lot of nostalgia for the current stadium, Chastain believes any development is good for him and his members.

“We have a lot of people that are in our union that say, ‘Why would anybody want to move? You got a stadium,’” Chastain says. “But we are in the construction business, and to be able to employ our members we have to have construction jobs.”

Ralph Oropeza, general manager of the Greater Kansas City Building & Construction Trades Council, feels the same. He’s heard the complaints about the new stadium — that it would displace current residents, take money from the city and be a mess to get to once it’s built. But he believes the positives outweigh the negatives.

“For labor, it's a benefit no matter what because we're going to put tradespeople to work,” Oropeza said. “My number one priority is to make sure that the trade unions are involved in the development of the city. … That means millions of dollars coming to the Kansas City area for labor, for working-class people, for the middle class, for people that are spending money here in our city.”

The Royals have estimated the project would bring in 20,000 jobs and $1.4 billion in labor income over the three-year construction period.

Costing an estimated $2 billion, the stadium and surrounding entertainment district would be the largest public-private partnership in Kansas City history, coming soon after the last largest public-private partnership: the new Kansas City International Airport terminal, which opened in February.

The workforce agreement for the terminal allowed for 5% participation from non-union women- and minority-owned businesses because the developer, Edgemoor, did not think it could meet its diversity pledge otherwise. Ultimately, it did meet those goals and all non-union workers opted into the union contract. While it ended up being a 100% union project, Chastain says unions want more from a possible Royals contract.

“We're always looking for something better,” Chastain says. “There were things in the KCI workforce agreement that wasn't desirable for us, but that's what we had, and that's what we were able to negotiate.”

In Jackson County, any development with a value greater than $50,000 has to establish contract goals for using minority- and women-owned businesses. Similar diversity goals must be set if the Royals seek tax money from Kansas City.

Oropeza says that won’t be an issue with the Royals stadium.

“In my perfect world, if John Sherman did come to me and say, ‘Hey, look, it's going to be 100% union, what do you need?’ Well, I would need a percentage of that to be also with minority-owned and women-owned (contractors),” Oropeza says. “They're there. We just got to find the tools to help them so that they feel safe to get into something.”

A man stands near a table working with a sheet of metal. Nearby are different hand tools and a large sheet of paper with a design printed on it.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Tom Watson, a student at Sheet Metal Workers Local 2, draws a pattern onto a sheet of metal using a hand-layout method instead of using a computer design application. Chastain says sheet metal workers have touched nearly every part of Kauffman Stadium.

A new ballpark "won't make Kansas City rich"

While the increase of local jobs would temporarily help the local economy, most economists agree that sports stadiums don’t bring long-term benefits to the cities they’re in.

Michael Leeds, an economist at Temple University who has spent years researching sports, has found that “a baseball team has about the same impact on a community as a midsize department store.”

In fact, constructing a new ballpark, while good for workers, would likely preclude other projects. It’s what Leeds calls the opportunity cost of a new stadium — resources are devoted to building a ballpark instead of roads, bridges or other infrastructure a city may need.

“It's temporary,” Leeds says of stadium construction. “It's not something that's going to provide a sustained boost to the local economy.”

The Royals say the stadium will bring in about $185 million more annually than Kauffman Stadium does, but that is not “new” money, as economists would say. If there’s no ballpark, families who are buying parking, tickets and concessions at a Royals game would likely just spend that money elsewhere — at places like Worlds of Fun or the Country Club Plaza.

After all, most of the time, nobody is spending money at stadiums at all.

“It won't make Kansas City rich,” Leeds says. “It's something that is used 81 times a year and the other 280 plus days of the year, it's just this kind of giant thing that's sitting in the city. Maybe it's used a couple of times for high school tournaments, maybe a concert, maybe a graduation ceremony. But really, there's very little economic impact outside of those 81 days of the year.”

Creating jobs that change generations

Stand Up KC member Terrance Wise figures the stadium will be union built. But he wants to make sure it’s union run so that the success of the ballpark will benefit people for generations to come.

“These can be jobs that change generations around here, and they can be good paying jobs and really alter what this city looks like,” Wise says. “And that's what we want when we talk about racial and economic justice.”

Team owner Sherman told KCUR’s Up to Date in March that he believes Jackson County residents will vote to continue the ⅜-cent sales tax that maintains Kauffman Stadium to fund a new stadium. That, plus an additional $1 billion from the ownership group, will make up much of the estimated $2 billion to build it.

“If we're going to have public partners, we have to deliver public benefit and we'd expect the public to hold us accountable to deliver those benefits,” Sherman said.

Wise says Stand Up KC plans to hold the Royals to that promise. They’ve seen the evidence that a new stadium doesn’t make much financial sense, so the coalition is working to ensure it helps workers and the community that surrounds it.

The coalition wants the Royals to agree to a community benefits agreement that would raise the wage floor and give stadium and entertainment district workers a living wage, whatever that may be when the stadium opens.

The agreement calls for current workers at Kauffman Stadium to be able to keep their jobs, and for the Royals to hire at least 50% of employees from Kansas City zip codes hit hard by unemployment.

Stand Up KC is also demanding that the Royals give all workers in the ballpark and surrounding entertainment district an opportunity to unionize without interference from employers.

Leeds says an agreement like this could close the gap between who bears the cost of a publicly funded stadium and who reaps the benefits.

“A lot of the time what you see is the funding of the stadium falls disproportionately on the residents of the city,” Leeds says. “The pie doesn't get that much bigger. So making sure that the local residents get a slice, I think is not a bad idea.”

A large, blue digital baseball stadium display reads "Welcome to the City. Next to it is a building with a sign that reads "Bullpen Burgers."
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
When the Royals replace the 50-year-old Kauffman Stadium, Stand Up KC wants to make sure stadium workers, like those at Bullpen Burgers, get to keep their jobs and have a path to unionization.

The proposed agreement is modeled on one in Milwaukee, signed in 2016 by the Milwaukee Bucks owners and the Alliance for Good Jobs. It provided a living wage and hiring opportunities for residents in disadvantaged communities and gave arena district employees a path to unionization.

As a result of the Bucks agreement, more than 1,000 people were hired with full- and part-time union jobs with wages above the contract minimum. In 2020, workers increased the wage floor to $15 an hour through contract negotiations three years sooner than the original agreement.

A key part of Stand Up KC’s agreement is a provision for affordable housing and eviction prevention.

If the Royals sign on to the community benefits agreement, any residential housing built in the ballpark district would include a “substantial and truly affordable” amount of units for families at or below 30% of the area median income.

“Thousands of workers across the city experience poverty wages, being evicted, homelessness, hunger, all those things,” Wise says. “The Royals in this new project can literally change the city. Kansas City is one of the fastest growing cities in the country, and we can lead by example and show the rest of the country that not only are we building a world class stadium and entertainment district, but everyone who's involved in it is going to be treated fairly.”

Stand Up KC organizer Bill Thompson, who has been a restaurant worker for more than 30 years, doesn’t have benefits and relies on food pantries and Medicaid to get by. He believes that this agreement can make sure workers in the restaurants, hotels, bars and concessions in and around the new stadium won’t need those services.

“We have plenty of jobs that are beneath the workers' dignity already,” Thompson says. “Poverty is something that we should defeat with this benefits agreement. It has the potential to drastically change the way of life of everyone in the surrounding area that they're proposed to build this stadium. If it’s not, then why build it?”

The Royals’ ownership group has met with Stand Up KC twice to discuss the possibility of a community benefits agreement.

Another meeting is scheduled for mid-May, but a Stand Up KC representative says it feels at times like they have to drag the Royals along.

Thompson is hopeful negotiations will be successful. He remembers going to Royals games with his dad as a kid, but hasn’t been able to afford to go since Willie Wilson played in 1987.

“I’ve been a Royals fan since I could walk. The reason my dad was able to go and take me to those games and have a good Royals family experience was that he was a union worker,” Thompson says.

He hopes that when he can see a game live, it’ll be in a stadium built by and benefiting workers.

Updated: May 1, 2023 at 1:20 PM CDT
This story was updated to clarify that while the Royals have confirmed they are considering at least one location outside of Kansas City, Missouri, they have committed to remaining in the Kansas City market.
When news breaks, it can be easy to rely on officials and people in power to get information fast. As KCUR’s general assignment and breaking news reporter, I want to bring you the human faces of the day’s biggest stories. Whether it’s a local shop owner or a worker on the picket line, I want to give you the stories of the real people who are driving change in the Kansas City area. Email me at savannahhawley@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @savannahhawley.
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