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Ballparks on the Ballot

Miller Park

This Election Day will bring a high-profile ballot measure to Arlington voters, who will decide the fate of a proposed retractable roof ballpark for the Texas Rangers. That initiative is the first for a major league ballpark in years, but there was once a time where ballpark referendums were commonplace.

Thanks in part to invaluable research from Marquette University, there is some data covering referendums for ballparks from 1990 to the present day. In many cases, the scenarios were straightforward—voters were given the propositions, which usually included a series of new taxes, or tax increases or extensions that were affirmed to finance a new facility. However, there were times where ballot measures failed, only for their failure to not be enough to prevent a ballpark from being constructed.

The latter example has played out with at least three current facilities—the Seattle Mariners’ Safeco Field, the Milwaukee Brewers’ Miller Park, and the Pittsburgh Pirates’ PNC Park. In September 1995, voters narrowly turned down a plan that would have increased the King County sales tax from 8.2% to 8.3%. However, with the Mariners making it clear that their future in Seattle was uncertain because of the condition of the Kingdome, Washington governor Mike Lowry convened a special session that ultimately allowed King County to approve a funding mechanism that included tax increases—aimed in part at ballpark admission, rental cars, and beverages at bars and restaurants. Those funds were leveraged to construct Safeco Field, which opened in 1999.

Similar situations unfolded in both Pittsburgh and Milwaukee. A regional sales tax increase in 11 counties to cover a new facility for the Pirates, a stadium for the Steelers, and an expanded convention center was voted down in 1997. Plan B, a modified proposal, quickly surfaced and was finalized by the State of Pennsylvania in February 1999, authorizing state funding for all three projects, plus higher commitments from the Steelers and Pirates, and the reallocation of existing tax revenue.

In 1995, a plan surfaced to create a sports lottery that would help pay for a new ballpark for the Milwaukee Brewers. That concept was rejected via referendum in April of that year, but the ballpark campaigning did not end there. In a controversial vote that October, the Wisconsin State Legislature approved a funding plan that included a 0.1% sales tax increase that was imposed Milwaukee County and four surrounding counties.

While those rejected plans were eventually resurrected, some ballpark proposals never came to fruition. The Minnesota Twins saw this scenario play out several times in the late 1990’s, first in 1998, when Carl Pohlad agreed to sell the team to businessman Don Beaver if a ballpark were approved by North Carolina voters.  Under that proposal, the Twins would have moved to the Piedmont Triad and into a ballpark that was partially funded by taxes in Guilford and Forsyth counties. Voters in both counties, however, voted against the proposal in high margins, and a separate attempt by Beaver to move the team to Charlotte was unsuccessful.

In 1999, a plan by that was backed by St. Paul mayor Norm Coleman was sent to voters. If it had been approved, a 0.5% sales tax increase would have allowed the Twins to move into a new ballpark in the city’s downtown, with the increase covering 1/3 of the project’s price tag. Ultimately, 58% of St. Paul voters casted their ballot against the plan.

Defeats are certainly evident in the history of ballpark development, but many current facilities were approved via referendum, sometimes when packaged with other projects. In 1990 Cuyahoga County voters affirmed a proposed increase on the so-called Sin Tax—applied to alcohol and cigarettes—which was leveraged to fund the Gateway Sports Complex, which included both the Cleveland Indians’ Jacobs Field and the Cavaliers’ Gund Arena.

Hamilton County voters followed suit in 1996 by approving a 0.5% sales tax increase that funded both the Cincinnati Reds’ Great American Ballpark and the Bengals’ Paul Brown Stadium. That same year, a 2% hotel tax and 5% car rental tax were approved by Harris County voters to fund a new home for the Houston Astros, which would become known as Enron Field. The measure passed by a narrow 51% to 49% margin. Another 1996 referendum was in Detroit, where voters cleared the way for the Tigers’ Comerica Park by repealing a ban on city funding major sports facilities, and separately approving the use of bond money for a public contribution to the project.

In 1998, the San Diego Padres benefitted from a referendum that saw voters approve a hotel tax increase to help cover a public contribution Petco Park. The vote, which came just weeks after the Padres appeared in the World Series for the second in franchise history, received nearly 60% approval.

A renovation to Kauffman Stadium was approved in 2006 after voters authorized a 3/8 cent sales tax increase. While that did lead to large-scale renovations to both the home of the Kansas City Royals and the adjacent Arrowhead Stadium, home of the Chiefs, voters rejected a separate measure that called for the construction of a rolling roof that would protect both facilities from the elements. The measure for the roof would have created a county use tax that equaled the sales tax.

Even though the bulk of it was privately financed, the San Francisco Giants had their ballpark proposal—which called for building the facility on city-owned land—on the ballot. In March 1996, the measure passed by a wide margin, clearing the way for what is now AT&T Park.

Political moods can turn with the passing of time, and every community’s priorities are unique, so these cases in no way apply to what will happen in November. It remains to be seen what Arlington voters will decide on the Rangers’ proposal but, either way, the result will become the latest in the long line of ballpark referendums.

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