The Durham City Council are rounding the bases, but will they make it home?

This post was written by current student, Stephen Thompson.


“Take me out to the Ball Game” was written by composer Albert Von Tilzer and lyricist Jack Norworth in 1908. With its descriptive lyrics and recognizable melody, it perfectly encapsulates the essence of the baseball experience. You’re probably already humming the song under your breath right now. What could be more American than baseball, apple pie, and democracy? Well, these days it’s the marble cake that is public and private partnership.

The Durham Bulls are a Minor League Baseball team [AAA if that means anything to you], and poster children for their hometown. Although they are a private baseball club, thanks to the international success of the movie Bull Durham, this team is synonymous with Bull City and interwoven into the culture of the community. So interwoven in fact, that in 1995 the city of Durham built the team a brand-new stadium, helping to propel the team from up to its current classification of Triple-A. [Previously, it had been a Class-A Advanced team in the Carolina League, leading to my belief that there are far too many “A” designations in American Baseball. I digress.] So, the Durham Bulls are a privately owned baseball team whose home stadium, Durham Bulls Athletic Park (D-BAP) is owned by the city of Durham, NC. If that sounds odd to you, you probably aren’t familiar with American sports. Most of the nationally recognizable sports stadiums are owned by their respective local governments. While its not too hard to see the argument for this arrangement; the team represents the city, the city’s morale and cultural clout is tied to the team, the team needs somewhere to play, the city needs tax revenue to function—it gets more complicated in application. Here in lies the predicament in which the City of Durham finds itself.

The official organization of Major League Baseball dictates the specifications of an MLB stadium: size of the field, number of seats, etc. These stadium requirements must be met for any team to play in any of the MLB classified leagues. If the MLB changes their specifications of a qualifying field—as an independent organization is free to do, MLB teams must complete renovations to their stadiums in order to maintain their member status. But that would mean that the owners of the stadium would be over a barrel, obligated to pay for these renovations on behalf of the team. The owners being the taxpayers of the city. Now you’re seeing the marble in the cake.

You can read up on the specifics of the situation HERE but the 30,000 foot view is that the DBAP requires $10.2 million worth of renovations. The team is only able to chip in $1 million dollars, so Durham County taxpayers are on the hook for the other $9 million. If the stadium doesn’t get the upgrades, the Bulls either lose their MLB league position or have to move to another stadium (presumably in another city). Its complicated situation, with a fairly simple yes or now quest. Will they, or won’t they?

This trend of cities building stadiums to attract teams to play has present dating back to the early 20th century, but it really took off in the 90s. Ever since then, talking heads (and bloggers like me) have been debating the benefits and costs of cities building and maintaining these modern-day Colosseums. There are economic benefits and social draw backs, but as an MPA students I can’t help but wonder if this is what the constitutional framers had I mind when they hashed out the details of their new democracy. Citizens of a representative democracy free from the tyranny of the king, but still obliged to kowtow to private industry. Of course, I’m oversimplifying the situation, but the principal question for the city remains: Should taxpayers pick up the check for this private sports team?

At this point I image you’re thinking, “we that’s unfortunate, but what would the city of Durham do with DBAP if it didn’t have a baseball team to make it home?“ Funny you ask that; I was wondering the same thing. Turns out, the stadium is also home to two college baseball teams and hosts other events in the off season. So, it doesn’t have to be home to the Durham Bulls… Before the angry emails start to flood into my inbox, I’m not arguing that the city should balk on the renovations bill or that the Bulls franchise should move to another town [my wife would never forgive me], but I am wondering if the stadium should be owned by the city? This seem much more akin to a private venture, rather than a public service. Hats off to the city for getting the ball rolling, but now almost 30 years later, I question whether the city should be shelling out funds or issuing bonds to pay for renovations on a stadium to benefit a private organization.

Truth be told this is the type of messy situation which has given rise to the nonprofit boom we’re currently enjoying. Local governments are founding nonprofits to take these type of burdens off of the city financial books [and taxpayers]. By creating very specific nonprofits for downtown historic districts and similar ventures cities can support the cause, budget some monies toward the endeavors, but also seek outside funding. Of course, there’s more to it than just that, but local governments today are facing situations and realities never dreamed of by public administrators in 1908. The ever-shifting line between private and public sectors is getting finer and finer. Non-Governmental Agencies and Nonprofit Organizations are helping to fill that growing gray area that seems to find new questions every week. If you live in Durham, like I do, I encourage you to keep an eye on this situation. If you don’t live in Bull City, I still encourage you to keep abreast of what capital assets your local government owns. Those assets are maintained with your tax dollars. Some are good, some are bad, but you get a crack at all of them. That’s how it’s played in democracy and “in the old ballgame.”

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