A’s look to trade Papago for a Grotto

No, we’re not talking about the BatCave or the Playboy Mansion, but it’s a grotto of a sort. The City of Mesa has approved a memorandum of understanding between the City and the A’s that outlines the terms of the A’s move to Hohokam Stadium starting in 2015. (If you haven’t been to Hohokam or would like a visual refresh, this photo blog is a good start.)

Per the terms in the MOU, the A’s would stay at a renovated Hohokam for 20 years initially, though they have the chance to break the lease after the 15th year as long as they pay $1 million for each year they don’t stay. There are also two 5-year options the team can exercise after the 20-year term is up. Hohokam Mesa was the A’s spring training home from 1969-78, much of the era spent at a place near downtown known as Rendezvous Park. After spending a few years in Scottsdale, the A’s moved to Phoenix Municipal Stadium. The 2013 season marks the 30th spring training spent at Muni, with only one more before the move 8 miles east to Mesa. The Cubs were granted major improvements to Hohokam/Fitch in 1997.

At 12,500 (or 13,000) seats, Hohokam has arguably the largest capacity of any spring training ballpark, Cactus or Grapefruit League. That stands to reason because the home team has long been the Cubs, whose large, multigenerational, national fanbase and eager snowbirds regularly put up league-leading attendance figures. For the A’s some of that capacity won’t be needed, so some of the seating sections will be removed or reduced in size, to be replaced by more premium, revenue-generating facilities.

Renovated area beneath LF scoreboard includes “Grotto” bar at field level

The biggest major change will be in left field, where the expansive berm will be significantly reduced if not altogether eliminated. Instead there will be two standing tiers, the lower one containing a dugout-like “Grotto bar”. This bar will be at field level, which means that the solid fence in left will be replaced by chain link to provide fans views from the bar. The upper tier leading up to the scoreboard is a smaller standing platform. Behind the scoreboard is a terraced picnic area leading down to a staging area for numerous food trucks. Though it’s not mentioned, I imagine that the scoreboard itself will receive some upgrades.

Down the LF line a set of bleachers will be replaced by a covered pavilion

Another bar will take the place of a freestanding bleacher stand near the left field corner. It will be part of a covered pavilion whose standing terrace will replace several rows of seats down the line. The setup is very reminiscent of Raley Field’s beer garden, which is also down the left field line.

The drawings above are preliminary and are subject to change. They were the only two from the City Council presentation, with another slide devoted to changes at the nearby training facility, Fitch Park. Even with the reduced seating, I figure the capacity will be at or around 10,000, which would put Hohokam in the middle of the pack as far as the Cactus League goes. Unless the A’s make other changes, it appears that the other berm areas in center and right field will remain intact. Altogether, it’s a nice set of improvements from not only PHX Muni, but also from the current Hohokam. There will still be inexpensive and family-friendly options, along with more swanky facilities for fans. Fitch Park will get a clubhouse expansion. Even with the fairly restrained upgrades the A’s are getting compared to other teams with new spring training complexes, the Hohokam/Fitch combo will be superior to the Coliseum. There’s all sorts of just not right in that.

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The funding part is simple and straightforward. As we discussed two weeks ago, Mesa is paying for the first $15 million of the project. Mesa and the A’s split the cost from $15 million to $20 million, and the A’s will pay for the rest. What’s interesting about this is that the A’s aren’t paying any rent. For the three month period (January 15 to April 15) that the A’s occupy Hohokam/Fitch, they pull in and keep all revenues while paying for all costs. City controls revenue and pays for costs during the other nine months. Those costs include concessions, security, and parking personnel plus utilities. During spring training the A’s are responsible for repairs and maintenance inside the walls and fences so to speak, whereas City takes care of the surrounding grounds. Both sides are to contribute $25,000 annually to a capital improvements fund during the lease term, but that’s it as far as yearly obligations. Mesa has used a similar agreement for the Cubs for years.

Compare that to the now-dead lease extension agreement negotiated for PHX Muni. The A’s would’ve paid up to $500,000 per year plus a $50,000 capital improvements contribution through 2025. Assuming operating costs isn’t small potatoes, but it’s a preferable arrangement for any team since it has control over everything.

Why would the City of Mesa do the deal? City has been wanting to keep Hohokam/Fitch up-to-date even after the Cubs leave for nearby Riverview Park. They did a study to determine what the costs would be in three scenarios:

A: Do upgrades needed to make Hohokam/Fitch attractive for another team in the future, including teams currently in the Grapefruit League
B: Cease operating Hohokam/Fitch as a spring training facility and run it only as a public park
C: Do upgrades up to the A’s standards request
Turns out that the annual cost for Scenario C was $773,231, slightly more than half of Scenario B ($1,490,228) and slightly more than a third of the cost under Scenario A ($2,310,406). Those figures don’t include debt service on the $15-20 million of improvements. By that sort of limited perspective, having the A’s at Hohokam is better than the alternatives. It leaves one lingering question: Who’s paying for the $15-20 million?

Tourists and locals, that’s who. Funding for both Hohokam/Fitch and the Cubs’ $99 million Riverview Park (“Wrigleyvile West”) project will be covered by Mesa’s Enterprise Fund, which is essentially a big redevelopment fund bucket. Debt service is paid for by utility taxes on the 439,000 (bigger than Oakland) residents. Last year Mesa was able to refinance the existing fund debt, which could save Mesa up to $72 million over the next five years. Some money may also come from the Arizona Sports and Tourism Authority, the state-authorized body that boosted hotel and car rental taxes to help pay for numerous Cactus League ballparks and the market’s crown jewel, University of Phoenix Stadium.

While it’s not apples to apples, there may be some comparisons between the Hohokam/Fitch deal and whatever may be negotiated for the A’s at the Coliseum. Short of the Coliseum Authority giving the A’s an extension of the current deal and throwing in some improvements on top of that (fat chance), I can’t see how the A’s could get a better deal than what the team is getting in Mesa. Unless you’re the Cubs, that is. The Cubs are getting this:

Lew Wolff and Flip Maritz own a hotel in Mesa. Unfortunately for A’s fans, it’s 3.5 circuitous miles away from Hohokam. Luckily for Cubs fans and Maritz Wolff, the Hyatt Place is only a mile from Wrigleyville West, just off the top of the rendering above. I guess if Cubs fans are stuck with an eternally heartbreaking team, nice surroundings can provide some consolation.

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P.S. – If you’re going to the Valley of the Sun to catch some spring training action and you’re headed to Hohokam, you might want to check out the Mesa Historical Museum, which has an exhibition called “Play Ball: The Cactus League Experience“. The museum is located in downtown Mesa, 2 miles from Hohokam. Exhibits will include items and photos of the A’s first stay in Mesa.