Salt Lake Bees leaving the Ballpark neighborhood could be disaster for residents

Miller family owns plot in Daybreak that would work for a baseball stadium — Triple A or MLB.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Salt Lake Bees open their season at Smith’s Ballpark Thursday night, May 6, 2021, after shutting down for the 2020 season due to the pandemic. With the team's lease at the stadium expiring in 2024, residents worry about what will become of the Ballpark neighborhood if the Bees don't return.

The soundtrack of Amy Hawkins’ life is set to the beat of Smith’s Ballpark.

She channels the cheers of the crowd when she’s out weeding the yard of her house, which sits just a block south of the Salt Lake Bees minor-league baseball stadium. The sometimes sonorous, sometimes discordant strands belted out during tryouts to sing the Star Spangled Banner faithfully signify the end of spring. And a snippet of Prince’s “Purple Rain” can give her a weather report as reliable as any TV station’s.

So when all those sounds disappeared in 2020, when the Bees’ season was canceled because of the coronavirus, the silence was disconcerting.

“The neighborhood felt so different that year,” said Hawkins, the chair of the Ballpark Community Council. “And I know every neighborhood felt different. But baseball season is so intrinsic to the positive energy in this community, not having it felt so physically and emotionally empty.”

That experience has been looming large in the minds of Ballpark neighborhood residents as the Bees wrap up their final homestands of the season. The team’s owner, the Larry H. Miller Company, and the city only have two years left to agree to terms on a new lease at the ballpark. If they can’t, which isn’t a far-fetched scenario, the Bees’ departure might not just put a hush over the slowly gentrifying neighborhood. Hawkins said she worries it might destroy it.

“It is,” she said, “a little scary to even think about.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ballpark Community Council Chair Amy Hawkins cleaned out the back yard of a boarded up home located at Richards Street in 2019 after she was alerted to criminal activity and squatters living on the property. Hawkins and her neighbors in the Ballpark area are concerned about what will happen if the Salt Lake Bees baseball team doesn't return to the neighborhood namesake, Smith's Ballpark, after their lease expires in 2024.

Play ball

Almost as long as there has been professional baseball in Salt Lake City, it has been played at the site of what is currently known as Smith’s Ballpark, at the corner of 1300 South and West Temple.

The very first Bees team played there in 1915, at what would later be called Derks Field. Nearly 80 years later, the city agreed to build a new stadium at the same site as part of a play to lure in the Portland Beavers, the Triple-A affiliate of Major League Baseball’s Minnesota Twins. The 14,511-seat stadium, originally known as Franklin Quest Field, was renamed Smith’s Ballpark in 2014 — just as the team entered the first of two consecutive five-year lease extensions that guaranteed the Bees would make the neighborhood their hive until at least 2024.

The Larry H. Miller Company, which bought the team in 2006 — five years after it became the Triple-A affiliate of the Anaheim Angels — has made no indication it plans to move the Bees. But it hasn’t guaranteed they will stay, either.

In a statement provided to The Salt Lake Tribune, the company said it has been negotiating for several years with Salt Lake City and mayor Erin Mendenhall.

“While no decision about the long-term home of the Bees has been made, we will continue to engage with Mayor Mendenhall, her team and other stakeholders as we carefully consider the investment needed to renovate and modernize the aging ballpark and address safety concerns in the area,” the statement said. “The Larry H. Miller Company’s mission is to enrich lives, and we are excited about and committed to the advancement of baseball in Utah.”

Tribune file photo A player signs autographs for fans at Derks Field is seen in this undated photo.

That last part, about the company’s pursuit of “the advancement of baseball in Utah,” is at the heart of the speculation about whether or not the team will relocate.

Last year, the Larry H. Miller Company acquired 1,300 acres of land — along with future residential and commercial development rights — in the 4,000-acre Daybreak development in South Jordan, according to the online publication Building Salt Lake. If the company wanted to, it could build a new Bees stadium on that land.

Even more intriguing, however, is the prospect the Larry H. Miller Company may be lining things up to build an MLB stadium there. Last month, the Smith Entertainment Group, which bought the Utah Jazz from the Larry H. Miller Company in 2020, announced plans to bring a third pro sports team to Utah. Since then, the Larry H. Miller Company reportedly sold 10% of its remaining ownership interest in the Jazz to private equity firm Arctos Sports Partners, which is partnering with SEG to expand Utah’s sports offerings.

If an MLB team is in Utah’s future, the Daybreak site has plenty of upside. It is big enough to allow for a stadium to be buttressed by revenue-boosting developments, such as shops, hotels, movie complexes and entertainment venues, which follows the current trend in stadium construction. Plus, it would be easily accessible by residents of both Salt Lake and Utah counties. That’s about 2 million people within a half-hour drive, a combination that has led to success for other MLB parks.

The Larry H. Miller Company is in the planning phase and has not cemented plans for that parcel, according to a statement to The Tribune. However, the company acknowledged it believes the land has broad potential.

“As a landowner, we see a once-in-a-generation opportunity with the southwest quadrant of the Salt Lake Valley,” the statement, issued Friday, said. “We are exploring opportunities to balance growth, infrastructure demands, jobs and housing needs and how the southwest quadrant could be developed to complement and be additive to the quality of life in Utah.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) New Daybreak construction in South Jordan on Thursday, May 19, 2022.

Bringing an MLB team to Daybreak — Angels owner Arte Moreno just happens to be exploring selling his team — could result in the Bees staying in the Ballpark neighborhood (which likely does not have enough easily malleable land to accommodate an MLB complex). It would likely not be a problem in the eyes of the MLB, at least, which restructured its minor-league system in 2021 in part to shorten the distance between Triple-A teams and their major league affiliates.

But, might it be a problem for the Bees?

“I don’t know if,” Hawkins said, “… just the Salt Lake Valley population would be enough to sustain both.”

It wouldn’t matter if the Bees left the Ballpark district because they found fancy new digs. Or because they couldn’t scrape together enough sponsorship or fans. Or for any other reason. If they left, it might be a crushing blow to a neighborhood already struggling on several fronts.

Neighborhood in need

The Ballpark neighborhood, located roughly between 900 South and 2100 South and between Interstate 15 and State Street, has dealt with crime, homelessness, drugs and prostitution despite recent efforts by the Salt Lake City Police Department to create a substation within the ballpark and to increase patrols in the area.

Those are issues right now, when the team is playing. But residents got an eye-opening look into what the area could descend into when the minor-league baseball season was canceled in 2020.

Hawkins said she knew the area felt different, and not just because she didn’t hear the cacophony of sounds radiating out of the baseball stadium 75 nights that year. It felt more on edge, more dangerous. Then, a few weeks ago, an acquaintance of hers charted a graph of “person crime” in the Ballpark and in the nearby East Liberty and Liberty Wells neighborhoods for 2018 through this May using publicly available data from the SLCPD. Person crimes include aggravated assault and other forms of assault, homicide, rape, robbery, family offenses and sex offenses.

The line showing the Ballpark neighborhood during the summer of 2020 crests over the rest of the graph like Mount Nebo over the Utah Valley, but with a sharper relief.

“I knew we all perceived that things had gotten significantly worse,” Hawkins said. “But seeing it in graphical form was really powerful.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The city has made decreasing crime in the area a focal point. Intertwined with that intent are lofty plans to develop the area around Smith’s Ballpark into an entertainment district. Last December the city released a draft of its Ballpark Station Area Plan, which strives to make the neighborhood more walkable, add a car-free “festival street” and promote the development of multi-unit housing and retail shops in the area. Parts of the plan would require rezoning.

The problem is, that plan puts the stadium at its center. And if the Bees or another neighborhood anchor isn’t in the stadium, the plan won’t work.

Hawkins said she worries the city isn’t formulating a backup plan for that scenario, and she wonders what will happen to her neighborhood if it has to come up with one.

“City plans move slowly,” she said, “so there could be a dangerous gap of a few years.”

That’s why the city is focused on making sure the Bees don’t go anywhere.

SLC makes a pitch

Under terms of the current lease, the Bees pay $15,000 in rent per year, which includes the parking lot to the north across 1300 South, according to the website Building Salt Lake. The Bees must also pay all operating and maintenance expenses, which would be the biggest burden on the city if they leave and a new tenant can’t quickly be found. But, the baseball team keeps 100% of the gate revenue. The city, meanwhile, is responsible for all capital improvements, including replacing the roof or the turf. Most of that money comes from the city’s 40% share of the stadium naming rights revenue, which is $270,000 per year over a five-year contract.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Police hold a news conference announcing the opening of a substation at Smith’s Ballpark, Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022.

Mendenhall said in a statement provided to The Tribune that she believes “the road ahead is bright for professional baseball in Salt Lake City.”

“Salt Lake City loves baseball and we’re committed to the future of the Bees in Utah’s capital city,” she said. “We’re making transformational investments in our stadium with an eye toward the next 25 years of baseball in the Ballpark neighborhood, including a field replacement, a recently passed sales tax bond for critical stadium improvements, and more. That vision extends well beyond the outfield of the ballpark.”

She added, “The road ahead is bright for professional baseball in Salt Lake City and we’re optimistic about continuing our partnership with the Larry H. Miller group.”

Hawkins said residents of the Ballpark neighborhood aren’t panicking yet about the Bees potentially leaving the stadium, but they have begun asking questions. She said if she could get assurances from the Larry H. Miller Company that it would keep the club there, that would be a sound sweeter than the first time she heard “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” drift over her backyard at the start of the 2021 season.

“It was just like, thank God for that presence and to have that celebration back,” she said, noting she cried when she heard it. “It felt like such a big, big deal.”

Correction: Sept. 13, 2022, 8:15 a.m. >> The Triple-A team the city lured in with a new stadium was the Portland Beavers, not the Oregon Beavers as stated in a previous version of this article.

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