CAMDEN, N.J. – A baseball stadium that was a linchpin to the redevelopment of the Camden waterfront will sit mostly empty this season after the minor league team that played in it for 15 years folded, leaving the public on the hook for millions more of the cost to build it.
The independent Camden Riversharks stopped play when they couldn't reach a deal to stay at Campbell's Field after Camden County purchased it to save it from foreclosure last year.
County officials have been working since to bring a minor league team affiliated with Major League Baseball to Camden, but until they do, the county will be responsible for maintaining the $20 million, 6,400-seat stadium.
Camden County bought the stadium for $3.5 million, while a transit agency and New Jersey's economic development agency have forgiven millions in public loans used to help build it in 2001.
"It's definitely frustrating, but hopefully there will be a bright future there," said Louis Cappelli, the head of the Camden County freeholder board. "We've had some positive discussions. Hopefully something comes to fruition with a major league-affiliated team."
The stadium has striking views of downtown Philadelphia and the Benjamin Franklin Bridge and helped bring more life to the Camden waterfront as part of long-running efforts to revitalize one of the nation's most violent and poverty-stricken cities.
But the Riversharks ran into financial problems after the team's owner died in 2003, leading to years of unpaid bills and a lawsuit from Santander bank.
Under threat of the bank taking the stadium, the Delaware River Port Authority and the New Jersey Economic Development Authority converted more than $8 million in loans into a ticket surcharge estimated to net them less than a quarter of that over 15 years.
The clock on the 15 years started last August and they won't get anything until a pro team is playing there. Still, both agencies say the conversions were the best ways to recoup some money after a bad deal.
"In the end, I feel like we all came to believe that this was the maximum amount of money we were going to get," said DRPA CEO John Hanson. "If we didn't, we were going to wind up with nothing and no opportunity to recover anything and the stadium could wind up empty with just nobody playing in it."
"You had a bad deal. The real estate really didn't play out the way everyone hoped when we made the loan," said NJEDA President Tim Lizura.
The stadium financing deal was hailed as a successful public-private partnership when it was built, but the DRPA was later criticized for borrowing money to pay for economic development projects. The borrowing for projects around the Philadelphia region led to a $1 toll increase at the bridges and still makes up about 10 percent of the agency's debt, Hanson said. The DRPA no longer finances economic development projects.
Jeffrey Nash, who joined the DRPA board after the loan was made, said that it was a bad financial deal since the DRPA was listed in third position behind both Santander and the NJEDA. But he's optimistic that a proposed $1 billion commercial and residential development on parking lots next to the stadium will mean a brighter future.
"To quote partially from my favorite movie, 'if you rebuild it they will come,'" Nash said. "When you have that type of activity and critical mass in and around the baseball stadium what will flow from that is a minor league team, because it makes economic sense."
The stadium is one of three in New Jersey built for minor league baseball that no longer has professional teams.
Rutgers-Camden pays $75,000 annually to use Campbell's Field, said county spokesman Dan Keashen.
College teams also play at otherwise abandoned stadiums in Atlantic City and Newark. The Newark stadium was recently sold to developers for $10 million less than it cost to build and is to be demolished to make way for a new development. That deal wiped away $4 million in annual debt payments.
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