See you next Season!


Major League Hopes Pinned on the Minors

04/17/2009 9:17 AM -

Story by Lori Rotenberk, writer for The New York Times.  Published April 4, 2009.  Original article can be found here

ZION, Ill. — Cars traveling along Route 173 jerk to a halt when the gaudy sign in front of Roger’s Repair Service shop comes into view. Bold black letters spell out “Welcome Kevin Costner,” along with a zany name that changes on a whim.

One day it is “Welcome Kevin Costner and the Zion Zealots,” the next, “Welcome Kevin Costner and the Zion Zeppelins” — or whatever strikes the fancy of the shop’s owner, Roger Whitmore.

Mr. Whitmore, along with what often seems like all of Zion’s 23,677 residents, is almost giddy at the thought of naming the city’s new minor league baseball team of which Mr. Costner, the actor, is part owner. And it is hard to find anyone who is not hoping that the team will lead to an economic revival of this city 40 miles north of Chicago on the Wisconsin border.

Ground-breaking on a $15 million, 5,000-seat stadium is scheduled for early May — perhaps the most anticipated event since the city, founded by a faith healer, voted to repeal its self-imposed Prohibition in 2005. The stadium is part of a 30-acre city-owned complex set to open in May next year. It will include a banquet center, a field for children with disabilities and a waterslide.

The complex is expected to create 50 sorely needed full-time jobs and 267 seasonal jobs in Zion, where the Illinois Department of Employment Security reported an unemployment rate of 12.4 percent in February.

Officials estimate that the complex will add $750,000 a year in revenue to the municipal treasury from baseball and other events. More important, the officials say, the stadium will draw tourists and ancillary businesses, creating employment opportunities that the city sees as an answer to its prayers.

Zion’s history as a dry town founded on strict religious principles has been blamed for inhibiting its economic growth.

Many in Zion go so far as to suggest that divine intervention was responsible for Mr. Costner’s involvement as a primary investor in Grand Slam Sports and Entertainmentof Deerfield, the company that owns the Northern League team assigned here.

“Sometimes God just smiles,” said Delaine Rogers, a lifelong resident who is the city’s economic development director.

Zion is not the first community to pin its economic hopes on minor league baseball or stadium construction, and the results elsewhere have been mixed. In Gary, Ind., the Southshore Railcatshave won the Northern League championship two of the last four seasons, bringing people back to the city’s long-blighted downtown. But in Wichita, Kan., a AA baseball team moved to Arkansas two years ago after residents failed to embrace it.

Sports authorities and Major League Baseball teams are pressing local governments across the country in the hope of receiving federal stimulus money for stadium projects. But stimulus money is not being used to build the Zion stadium, said Ms. Rogers and Mayor Lane Harrison. The city owned the stadium land, and investors include some local banks.

Any government financing is likely to be included in a capital bill, which is how the state legislature finances infrastructure projects.

Rich Ehrenreich, who owns the Schaumburg Flyers, another minor league team in a Chicago suburb, is the managing partner of Grand Slam.

Mr. Costner, who has starred in baseball movies that include “Bull Durham,” “Field of Dreams” and “For Love of the Game,” said he had long nourished a dream of owning a baseball team and expressed thanks to the people of Zion “for this opportunity to be part of their community.”

“I’ve been approached several times about various projects,” Mr. Costner said in an e-mail interview, “but this group really seems to have the right idea in mind: creating jobs and bringing baseball to a community that needs something positive.”

He added: “This is a better way for me to be involved in baseball, rather than as a washed-up catcher,” a reference to the character he played in “Bull Durham.”

To date, the stadium’s only opposition has come from a blogger who suggested that the owners should persuade the Chicago Cubs to move there “because they play like a minor league team anyway.”

Zion was founded in the early 1900s by John Alexander Dowie, who espoused the principles of religious tolerance, racial equality, family, self-sufficiency and worship. Streets here carry biblical names — Elijah, Nazareth, Bethel — and a Bible sits among the newspapers left at the It’s All Good coffeehouse, a name derived from Romans 8:28.

The city’s ban on alcohol, shopping centers and theaters limited Zion’s economic options. Left with few choices, the city allowed the construction of a nuclear power plant, which opened in 1973 and brought 900 jobs. Next came several landfills.

But the power plant closed in 1999 after it could not meet new federal safety regulations without costly renovations. Unemployment rose and revenues sagged. Zion lost $17 million in real estate taxes when the plant’s value dropped to $10 million, from $240 million. The schools were hit hard by the falling revenues, and Ms. Rogers, then a professor of French and medieval literature at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, said she knew that if the education system faltered, no hope would remain.

She quit her job, ran for the elective office of economic development director and wondered whether the city could change.

Turns out it could.

Today, Zion has a Wal-Mart and is building an industrial park near the stadium site.

When Mr. Costner, Mr. Ehrenreich and others from Grand Slam came calling, the city went wild.

No longer would one of the more exciting forms of local entertainment consist of trying to spot the Homeland Security Department sharpshooter posted atop the nuclear plant to guard the radioactive fuel stored inside.

A formal naming contest for the team begins on Wednesday, and ticket sales for the 2010 season are to follow the next week. Tickets are to cost $5 to $15, with a discount for groups.

Anyone visiting Zion these days may be hard-pressed to find a conversation that does not turn to baseball. “I was at a Chamber of Commerce function recently,” said Mr. Whitmore, the auto repair shop owner, “and as soon as the stadium was mentioned, the crowd broke out in an ovation and cheered.”