As Salt Lake City’s Triple-A baseball considers moving out of the city, the future of the Ballpark neighborhood becomes even more uncertain

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The Salt Lake Bees minor-league baseball club is considering a move out of the city – and the timing couldn’t be worse for city hall. 

At the same time, the city council is currently reviewing and likely to rubber stamp the first neighborhood plan for the area. It centers the ballpark facility in the neighborhood’s future, counting on frequent events to enliven a “festival street.”

Talks at city hall over the Bees’ expiring lease at the city-owned Smith’s Ballpark have been ongoing for months, sources there confirmed to us. On the table is the team leaving for the suburbs.

City leaders have a lot on the line in the negotiations. The Ballpark neighborhood has been receiving recent media attention for safety, security, and homeless concerns – issues that are unlikely to see quick resolution In the slowly-gentrifying neighborhood. 

What if the Bees were to leave? How would the city compensate for the loss of frequent events?

Another question arises for the Ballpark neighborhood and city planners. 

Could you count it a success if you kept the minor-league affiliate in the stadium, at the cost of significant public investment with, up to this point, no measured economic return? And what if the literal big leagues are just down the road in fancy new digs?

Background – The Larry H. Miller Group

It can’t be ignored: the pixie sprinkle in the air of another major league sports franchise coming to Utah. Many sports fans, development watchers, and civic boosters are in a tizzy of speculation about what sport could come and where a stadium might be built.

The owners of the Bees, the Miller family, are likely partners in that effort. And it wouldn’t surprise anyone if Major League Baseball were at the top of the local owner’s group wish list, led by the Utah Jazz majority owner, Ryan Smith. 

A week ago the family was in the news after selling a part of their remaining 20% ownership in the Utah Jazz. The family’s patriarch Larry H. Miller bought the NBA franchise in 1985, which had moved to Salt Lake City from New Orleans in 1979. The recent sale seems likely to accommodate the new members of the Jazz ownership team, Arctos Sports Partners, a private equity firm specializing in sports and entertainment ventures.

Photo by Sam Klein.

Notably, Gail Miller, the head of the company since her husband Larry’s death in 2009, reasserted their commitment to the Bees in a statement marking the sale: “In addition to our business enterprises and philanthropic endeavors, we are proud to continue our ownership of the Salt Lake Bees, the Triple-A affiliate of the Los Angeles Angels. Our family and the Larry H. Miller Company are excited about and committed to the advancement of sports and entertainment in this great state.”

The Millers have been intensifying their real estate activity in recent years. 18 months ago they purchased management rights, future residential and commercial development rights, as well as 1300 undeveloped acres in the 4000-acre Daybreak development in South Jordan. Might it be the likely destination for a Major League Baseball stadium and related real estate development?

There’s little question that the trend in sport stadium development is to combine a stadium with other revenue flows – food and beverage, hospitality, retail, entertainment. Any new stadium for another major-league sports team in Utah would likely follow that pattern. 

And it likely can’t happen in the Ballpark neighborhood – the Miller’s don’t have the land assembled and they don’t even own the stadium.

The city’s overtures

With the deck stacked against them, the city has been conversing with the Bees ownership since at least early 2022. We are told that lease negotiations are currently being conducted through the Mayor’s Office.

In a “joint ceremonial resolution” on June 14 this year, the mayor and council expressed their strong support for the baseball club to re-sign at 1300 South and West Temple. It was read by the area’s representative, District 5’s Darin Mano, and included strong praise for the Bees organization:

“The Salt Lake Bees have provided responsible management…and have actively demonstrated their core values of integrity, hard work, stewardship, and service with world-class leadership throughout the lease partnership.”

The resolution mentions a “renovation plan.” When asked by Building Salt Lake what the city’s goals are in the negotiations, Mano messaged us, “Plan A is to keep the Bees where they are at. That would certainly mean investment and improvements to the ballpark itself as well as in the surrounding neighborhood.” 

The lease renewal negotiations come as the city council is set to approve the Ballpark Station Area plan, the neighborhood’s first visioning document. Hopes are very high among city leaders that neighborhood place-making is just around the corner. The ballpark facility is identified as “the heart of the neighborhood,” and maintaining baseball in the city-owned stadium is a key part of the plan’s vision.

The ballpark facility – driver of development?

The 12,5000-seat stadium, completed in 1994, was a signature project of Mayor Deedee Corradini (1992-2000), who with the new stadium was able to lure the Triple-A Portland Beavers to the high desert.

Built primarily with a bond issued by the city’s Redevelopment Agency, along with contributions from the county and state, $18.7 million in public money was buttressed by nearly $7 million in private contributions to pay for construction (Salt Lake Tribune, 2/20/2005). 

The stadium footprint is an RDA area, a mechanism that allowed the stadium project to receive the benefits of being in a Redevelopment Project Area – mainly floating a bond – but created zero tax increment to be invested in the surrounding neighborhoods.

Development around the ballpark facility, opened in 1994, has been minimal, with the notable exceptions of multi-family housing along West Temple and adjacent to the Trax station. Photos by Luke Garrott.

Expected to be an economic driver, the stadium hasn’t paid off in that way, In fact, that is the premise of the 2005 Tribune story by Lya Wodraska and Heather May cited above. They note that little has changed for the neighborhood in ten years of drawing fans to the stadium, despite the nearby Trax station opening in 1999.

Since that time, several multi-family housing developments have been constructed, both on West Temple and west of the Trax station at 200 West. Retail development adjacent to the Ballpark has nearly flat-lined in the 17 years since the Tribune’s 2005 10-year check-in. The exception is big-box development on 300 West near 1300 South, which is just two blocks away from the park, but detracts from walkability and efforts to design a neighborhood center.

The city’s current arrangement with the Bees

The current contract between the city and the Bees has the following outlines, according to the Facilities Division:

• $15,000/year rent, which includes parking lot to north

• Bees keep all game-day revenue

• City assumes all capital expenditures, which includes big-ticket items like replacement of roof and turf

• Bees responsible for maintenance and operations costs

• Bees may make improvements to the facility, but they must be approved by the city and become city property

The income from the current five-year naming-rights agreement with Smith’s food stores averages $270,000 a year, which is split 60-40 between the city and the club. 

The city says the funds to cover its capital project responsibilities come from the naming-rights funds and one-time appropriations from the city council.

What’s the city’s plan B?

While city leaders have been floating ideas behind the scenes about what to do with the ballpark if the Bees leave, they don’t want to talk about it. Council Member Mano responded to our questions about a possible plan by stating, “We’ve actually tried not to think about the plan B too much because none of us are ready to give up on plan A.”

Admittedly, it’s a scary thought: the city may have a purpose-built facility without a tenant. The Bees currently take care of operations and maintenance costs. Without those covered, the cost burden for the city skyrockets.

Yet another minor-league baseball team could be located and convinced to transplant – it has happened before.

The alternative, transforming a baseball stadium into another type of event venue is a massive challenge in design and finance.

Tearing down a stadium that is only 30 years old would be a bitter pill, but without a tenant, the city may perceive it has little choice.

Email Luke Garrott

Interested in seeing where developers are proposing and building new apartments in Salt Lake, or just want to support a local source of news on what’s happening in your neighborhood? Subscribe to Building Salt Lake.

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Posted by Luke Garrott

Luke Garrott, PhD, has published in The Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News, and written features for the Salt Lake City Weekly City Guide and The West View. A former two-term councilman in Salt Lake City's District 4, he lives in Downtown Salt Lake City and grew up in the Chicago area.