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If the Royals build a new 'ballpark district' in downtown Kansas City, who's paying for it?

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Kansas City Royals
John Sherman said in an open letter to fans and the community that the upkeep at Kauffman Stadium by the time the lease is up in 2031 will amount to as much or more than what it would cost to build a new ballpark. Above, an artist rendering of a new stadium near downtown Kansas City, Missouri.

Kansas City Royals chairman and CEO John Sherman said a new ballpark would be a "far better investment" than renovating Kauffman Stadium. But experts say the payoffs aren't so clear, especially if taxpayers have to help foot the bill.

A plan from the Kansas City Royals to build a new downtown stadium has many questioning who’s going to pay the $2 billion price tag and if it’s worth the hefty cost.

Royals chairman and CEO John Sherman announced on Tuesday that the team would move into the Kansas City, Missouri, downtown area. He said the club intends to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into the project.

But some experts on baseball economics say it's still too early to know who’s going to foot the rest of the bill.

“It seems like it's still a large gap. We're still not really clear who would be paying for this,” said Neil deMause, editor at the blog Field of Schemes and co-author of “Field of Schemes: How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money Into Private Profit."

Not only would the move include building a new stadium, Sherman said he envisions a “ballpark district” filled with shops, hotels, restaurants and affordable housing options.

Paul Goldberger, an architecture critic and the author of “Ballpark: Baseball in the American City,” says he thinks baseball integrates “beautifully” into downtowns and stimulates growth for those areas.

“There's something very natural about walking through a dense downtown and going to a baseball game,” Goldberger says. “That for me, it's very different from the sort of more suburban experience of coming in a car and parking and walking across acres of asphalt to go into something.”

Still, Goldberger says that doesn’t mean he thinks the Royals should receive a “blank check” for their development plans.

Sherman said the Royals will not ask Jackson County citizens to pay more tax dollars than what they already do in the current lease.

The Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce supports the downtown move. President and CEO Joe Reardon stated that it would be “of great benefit to downtown, the region, and to our already-robust sports infrastructure.”

However, deMause warns that sports stadiums cost a lot and don’t bring in a ton of tax revenue, since they're typically only open 81 days a year. He also warns that there could be a “cannibalization effect” between the new stadium and other businesses.

“There's only so much money that people in a city are going to spend, whether it's on going to baseball games, or going to movies or going to restaurants or going to anything else,” deMause said. “So if you start spending more one place, you're going to probably be taking money away from somewhere else.”

Goldberger said the home of the Giants in San Francisco is the one of the best models of a baseball stadium that had a positive economic effect on the city, with little public investment. He said the key to that success is that having development already in the works downtown.

“You cannot put on the shoulders of a ballpark the entire redevelopment of a downtown. I think it can strengthen and reinforce existing trends and push them forward some more, but it can't make something out of nothing,” Goldberger said. “And I think that's another reason that it's a plausible idea for Kansas City, because there's a lot of existing strengths and downtown to build on.”

Up To Date solicited feedback from listeners on the new stadium. Some Kansas City residents said they could support the move if it doesn’t require public funding, while others expressed concerns about worsening traffic and parking conditions.

Other callers raised concerns that taxpayers are paying for deferred maintenance at Kauffman Stadium, instead of the owners. The most recent updates to the stadium finished in 2009 after a $250 million renovation.

Sherman made the case that the Royals need a new facility because the projected cost of further renovating Kauffman Stadium would be more than building a new ballpark.

Goldberger said that while he thinks the Royals are looking at growing demands for downtown baseball stadiums, the current facility is still “one of the better places around.”

“So much as I like it in the abstract, the idea of downtown baseball as a positive thing, in reality, Kauffman’s looking pretty good,” Goldberger said. “I don't get this argument that this is some decrepit falling down place in desperate need.”

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