SportsRogers Centre’s $300-million reno won’t cost taxpayers, but Mark Shapiro’s long-term solution...

Rogers Centre’s $300-million reno won’t cost taxpayers, but Mark Shapiro’s long-term solution should give you sharp financial pains

Toronto Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro announced on Thursday that the Blue Jays would be making major renovations to the Rogers Centre.Cole Burston/The Canadian Press

The last new stadium built in Major League Baseball was Globe Life Field in Arlington, Tex.

Arlington is a Spanish word meaning ‘the confluence of six super-highways’. There’s not a whole lot to do there.

Knowing this, the Texas Rangers put the city on the financial rack and stretched it until it popped. A series of tax hikes were levied to cover the municipality’s US$500-million contribution. The stadium, which opened in May of 2020, ended up costing about US$1.2-billion.

There is a depressing sameness to new stadium deals. A sports club starts agitating for one. The city bucks. The club makes noises about leaving. The city collapses. A Mephistophelean bargain is struck. Once the real cost of the stadium is tallied, local taxpayers find out what ‘Mephistophelean’ means.

Buffalo’s got a bad case of this right now. It doesn’t need a new stadium to house the Bills, but it’s getting one anyway. Various levels of government are contributing US$850-million – nearly two-thirds of the projected cost.

Toronto Blue Jays announce Rogers Centre to get $300 million overhaul

So when a club near you starts talking about remodelling its house, this should give you a sharp pain in your lower financial region.

On Thursday, the Toronto Blue Jays launched their reno plan for Rogers Centre.

The goal, Jays president Mark Shapiro said, is to “turn this stadium into a ballpark.”

It’s a fine distinction, but he’s got a point. Rogers Centre isn’t the most charmless stadium in the game, but it’s close. Once you’ve been to a true ball yard – say, Oracle Park in San Francisco – it is impossible to find Toronto’s current baseball dungeon anything but dingy.

The proposed, intermittent renovation will begin this off-season and be completed by 2025 at the latest. Most of the changes will be cosmetic.

The outfield stands will be connected to the top of the fences, eliminating the void that currently exists. Swaths of 500-level seats will be converted to standing bars. The area between the foul lines and the first row of seats will be reduced.

Still, like any reno, the cost will surprise you – “over $300-million,” Shapiro said.

All these tweaks will make Rogers Centre less offensive to the eye, but they won’t change its major faults.

It’s still going to have artificial turf. The building still won’t drain. It’s still going to have a retractable roof. And because of that, it’s still going to remind you of an Albanian pillbox.

Almost in passing during his half-hour presentation, Shapiro mentioned that this is the “medium-term solution.”

What’s the long-term solution?

A “new ballpark,” on the current site or somewhere else.

How do you define ‘long term’?

“Ten to 12 years.”

Ten years from now, Vlad Guerrero Jr. will be 33 years old. In baseball and corporate terms, 10 years is the day after tomorrow.

Investing $300-million in a building you plan either to level or do a down-to-the-studs gut job on doesn’t seem like a great idea. But then one remembers what Rogers Inc. paid for this building – $25-million.

Taxpayers built the SkyDome. Rogers just took it over when everyone started to get tired of it.

Shapiro said Rogers will be paying the full cost of these planned improvements. He made sure to note how unusual that is in the North American context. He called public financing of private sports facilities “a natural part of the landscape.”

As he said that, you were starting to get a little rumble in the financials. Was this an announcement or an elevator pitch? Were we being warmed up for the big ask to come?

Someone asked Shapiro how he imagines this, as yet theoretical, new stadium being financed.

“Privately,” Shapiro said. “I just don’t think the examples of public funding exist in this country or this city … any time we were thinking about that before, we were thinking about private funding.”

That’s pretty unequivocal until you consider that it isn’t a promise. It’s an educated guess.

Shapiro is a smart guy. He knows there’s only one right answer to this question. To say anything else – to inject even the smallest hint of doubt – would create a fiscal panic.

But he’s not the guy who will be making that call. I’m sure he’s working with the information he’s been given, which is not to say that that’s all the information.

If you were being cynical, how would you sell a once-bitten, twice-shy taxpayer base on throwing in some cash to build your new stadium?

You wouldn’t just stick your hand out. If you did that, you might not get it back.

You’d start out with a sweetener. You’d show people what’s possible. Open up a few new terraces and bars. Give everyone a hit of civic pride. Dropping or freezing ticket prices would be a smart move. An exciting, winning baseball team – just like the one the Jays have now – would go a long way to winning friends.

And then when you’ve got a bit down the road, you’d float the idea that as good as things look now, imagine if they looked even better. You’d say, ‘But hey, that’s a tough one for us. We’re skint from that last refurb that we sort of gave you for free. And don’t get us wrong, we were happy to do it.

‘You know, I just thought of something. You wouldn’t want to help us out, would you? Fifty-fifty partners maybe? That’d be sort of fun, wouldn’t it? And you won’t believe how quickly you make that money back on business growth. I just happen to have some charts in my car. Let me go get them.’

Give a little now in the hopes of getting a lot later. Yeah, I think that’s how you’d do it.


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