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Published: 8/24/2013 - Updated: 7 months ago

Fans of Mud Hens, Walleye help downtown Toledo businesses score

BY JON CHAVEZ
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
Dave Mierzwiak, left, daughter Andria, wife Kathleen, and Achiga D'or, 2, eat at Ye Olde Cock n' Bull before a Mud Hens game. Dave Mierzwiak, left, daughter Andria, wife Kathleen, and Achiga D'or, 2, eat at Ye Olde Cock n' Bull before a Mud Hens game.
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Since the Mud Hens moved downtown 11 years ago, the citizenry of Toledo has done a lot for the minor league baseball club.

Despite two recessions since 2002 that slammed the city hard economically, an average of 557,000 fans a year — or 87 percent capacity of Fifth Third Field — bought tickets to watch the team play, a development that recently earned Toledo the title of Top Minor League Market in a ranking of 235 minor league sports cities by Street & Smith’s SportsBusiness Journal.

Clearly, Toledo has shown its Mud Hens a lot of love the last decade.

But as it turns out, that love is not one-sided.

Both the Mud Hens and their hockey counterpart, the Toledo Walleye, have reciprocated those warm feelings by giving the community a possible $100 million annual shot in the arm economically, a cultural identity for its residents, an entertainment venue for families, an impetus for business entrepreneurs, a sales tool for civic officials, a catalyst for housing developers, and a solution to those who have long sought ways to reinvigorate Toledo.

“I would say that we’re just one ingredient in the recipe. Maybe we’re that most important ingredient, I can’t say for sure. But certainly, we’re a catalyst,” said Michael Miller, chairman of the Toledo Mud Hens Baseball Club Inc., which operates both the Mud Hens and the Walleye.

Joe Napoli, Mud Hens club president and general manager, said that before the baseball team’s venue, Fifth Third Field, opened in the spring of 2002 the club commissioned an economic study by the auditing firm KPMG, which was then known as KPMG Peat Marwick.

The study suggested that moving the Mud Hens to Fifth Third Field from Maumee could mean an economic impact of $30 million per year on downtown Toledo.

“Using the formula they were using then, it could be closer to $70 million a year now,” Mr. Napoli said.

“And since the opening of the Huntington Center in 2009, you could probably make a case that between Fifth Third Field and the Huntington Center that that could be a $90 million to $100 million figure on an annual basis now,” he added.

Mr. Miller is uncertain what the combined true economic impact is of the Mud Hens at 10,300-seat Fifth Third Field and the Walleye at the 8,000-seat Huntington Center because the variables are so numerous. “I always kind of question [economic-impact estimates] because they’re so difficult to measure,” he said.

As a practical matter, said Andrew Zimbalist, a noted sports economist and economics professor at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., minor league sports teams don’t have much of a direct economic effect on a community because few are able to draw visitors from outside of their community.

“Basically, what’s happening is money is being spent, with the consumer income being spent at the sporting stadium or arena instead of other forms of entertainment around town such as restaurants or theaters,” he said.

The Mud Hens, however, may be an exception.

Mr. Napoli said when the team played at the 10,000-seat Lucas County Recreation Center, it drew an average of 300,000 visitors annually from a 30-mile radius. Since the move, ticket-sales data show that its draw radius is now 60 miles. Also, 40 percent of its patrons come from outside the Toledo city limits.

Rich Nachazel, president of Destination Toledo, the area’s convention and tourism agency, said Mud Hens and Walleye games have become a selling point to customers interested in booking conventions and events in the Toledo area.

“Last month we hosted the Ohio American Legion. Those groups always end up at Mud Hens stadium at one point or another,” Mr. Nachazel said.

It all helps Toledo's economy.

“The thing about visitor spending is they buy dinner, or gas, or a ticket to a game. They’re paying sales tax on all that,” he said, adding that an out-of-town visitor spends about $100-$150 a day — and double that if they stay overnight.

Mr. Miller and Mr. Napoli said their organization works hard to make Mud Hens or Walleye games an experience that people will want to repeat.

“It’s all about that fan experience. That’s where we get our money from,” Mr. Miller said $50,000 is spent every three years on research to provide the best fan experience. IntelliShop, a mystery shopper firm, is used to evaluate game-day experiences.

The efforts are paying off. “We’re getting folks from the Ann Arbor region, the Detroit region now,” Mr. Napoli said.

Jim Treece, an editor at Detroit-based Crain’s Automotive News, was part of a group of the magazine’s staffers and their families who came to the Mud Hens game July 7. For Mr. Treece, who lives in Detroit just blocks from Comerica Park, home to the Detroit Tigers, it was his first trip to Fifth Third Field.

“I really enjoyed the ballpark. There was a gentle grade on the seating, and I felt very close to the action,” he said.

Mr. Treece, a University of Minnesota alumnus, organizes college alumni trips to see the Tigers play in Detroit. But “I thought, you know, for the value, for the money, maybe we ought to go see the Mud Hens next time,” he said.

Mr. Zimbalist, the sports economist, said that while sports teams employ a lot of people — the Mud Hens and Walleye combined have about 500 employees — those workers are usually seasonal and low-paid, Mr. Zimbalist said. That often limits the direct economic impact a team has on a community. But socially and culturally, a sports team can have a huge impact.

“It can be a venue for wholesome family entertainment. It can be a focal point that the citizens can rally behind and find cohesion. A team creates some sense of identity and all those are things that Toledoans can rally behind,” he said.

Also, “one of the things that has been true in the last 10 years or so, is that some stadiums and arena projects have come along with other development in and around the stadium or arena,” Mr. Zimbalist said. “When there’s a lot of private development induced around the stadium, then that can have a very positive impact on a community.”

John Orr, owner of the Bronze Boar tavern at 20 S. Huron St. near Fifth Third Field, said the stadium has “had a tremendous effect” on the area. Mr. Orr was dubbed an “urban pioneer” in 2000 by Mayor Carty Finkbeiner after opening his establishment, then a cigar bar, without any assurances that the stadium would be built.

Passage of a city anti-smoking ordinance killed his cigar bar, but the Bronze Boar has succeeded because of baseball and hockey games, Mr. Orr said.

“During the summer, in my business, most taverns and such places go dormant because our major business is in the winter time,” he said. “But because of the ball games and everything we have year-round business.”

Lighting the way

For Ann Albright, owner of the Swan Creek Candle Co., which has an outlet at 413 Washington St. near the stadium, the Mud Hens are a big economic helper, though one wouldn’t think baseball and candles have much in common.

“The Mud Hens were there when I purchased our building and renovated it in 2005. Part of my reasoning was the exposure to however many thousands of people that go by there during a game,” she said.

“It was absolutely important, and it worked,” she said. Ms. Albright said people see her candle shop on the way to the stadium, then visit the shop later or visit one of her seven other outlets. “Without a doubt, if [the Mud Hens] hadn’t come there, I wouldn’t have come there,” she said.

Likewise, the Tony Packo’s chain was a well-established, iconic Toledo business with a successful restaurant just minutes from downtown Toledo in East Toledo. It had no need for a downtown location.

But Tony Packo III said the Mud Hens and Walleye convinced Packo’s owners that there would be a high level of year-round activity night and day. “It gave us confidence about investing in that area,” he said, referring to the chain’s Packo’s at the Park restaurant that opened in 2006 at 7 S. Superior St.

“Every year we’ve grown down there,” he added.

Wide impact

Even businesses not downtown appear to be feeding off the synergy of a Mud Hens or Walleye game day experience.

Jeff Lark, owner of Shawn’s Irish Taverns, said his tavern/​eatery at 4400 Heatherdowns Blvd. never saw much benefit or loss with the Mud Hens nearby at the Rec Center. “It was never anything that spiked the business either way,” he said.

But since Fifth Third Field opened, both his Heatherdowns location and a Shawn’s on South Third Street in Waterville have benefited.

“I think it’s been a positive impact for everyone. Even though the Mud Hens are now downtown we find that people will go to the game and after the game they head back this way [in Waterville] and stop in. Or they’ll stop in before a game to get a bite to eat,” Mr. Lark said.

“So I think it’s been a positive impact for all the businesses in the Toledo area. ... The way I see it, if we can keep people from going to Detroit and spending money there, to me that’s a very positive thing.”

According to information the Mud Hens baseball club has supplied for other reports, an estimated $50 million in redevelopment has occurred around Fifth Third Field and Huntington Center since 2002.

Last week the baseball club, which is a privately controlled, community-owned, not-for-profit entity governed by an unpaid board, announced that it is working with investors on a $10 million to $15 million expansion and renovation of an area near the stadium.

The proposal would include restoring two three-story buildings on St. Clair St. adjacent to Fifth Third Field, and also the old Spangler Candy Co. building across the street. The buildings could be used for an expanded Swamp Shop merchandise store, a rooftop patio, and a restaurant.

But whether the Mud Hens go forward with those plans or not, more development seems likely.

Tom Lemon, director of the Toledo-Lucas County Plan Commission, said the impact the Mud Hens and Walleye are having on the downtown cannot be underestimated.

“There is no question that the Mud Hens have had a tremendous impact on the downtown with all the restaurants and bars that have opened around the stadium,” he said.

Mr. Lemon said it’s possible that those businesses might have opened elsewhere locally over the last decade, “but I doubt they would have clustered in a way that created more synergy.”

The Mud Hens/​Walleye’s effect on downtown development since 2002 has been so pronounced that the plan commission recently felt it necessary to create a development plan for the downtown warehouse district, Mr. Lemon said.

“If you looked at the Hens when they were in Maumee, it never generated the economic catalyst that it has downtown. It’s definitely one of those things where the sum is greater than the pieces,” Mr. Lemon said.

John Jezak, administrator for the city of Maumee, said that when the Mud Hens left their longtime home at the Lucas County Recreation Center, it was a blow to Maumee’s civic pride but little else was lost in the relocation. The effect on Maumee eateries and taverns “was so small it’d be almost negligible,” he said.

Conversely, the closing of the Ford Stamping plant had a huge impact.

“There’s just no comparison economically at what we experienced between the closing of the Ford plant and the loss of the Mud Hens,” Mr. Jezak said.

Eleven years later, Mr. Jezak said relocating the Mud Hens has become a good thing for all of Lucas County. “The Mud Hens are in a better place to be downtown. The [central business district] did need a shot in the arm and it does get people to linger downtown and spend, and it does cause suburbanites to come back down,” he said.

Mark Rosentraub, a professor of sport management at the University of Michigan school of kinesiology and a consultant who advises cities on stadium development, said restoring vibrancy to downtown Toledo benefits all the city’s residents and was a noteworthy goal.

Lucas County, Mr. Rosentraub said, did not need the Mud Hens to be in Toledo, but the city of Toledo needed the Mud Hens to be downtown to generate city revenues. “If you don’t have these revenues that are used to deliver services, the city suffers,” he said.

“It’s not essential from an economic standpoint to have the central city survive, but from a moral and ethical issue the central city still has the highest proportion of lower-income people. If it doesn’t have enough revenues, it’s harder to help those people succeed,” Mr. Rosentraub said.

Living downtown

Bill Thomas, Downtown Toledo Development Corp. president, said the stadium and Huntington Center deserve credit for helping revive downtown residential development.

“When Fifth Third Field was built, it started a transformation of the Warehouse District. There were only five people living there at the time and now there’s 500. It’s become a place of energy and vitality,” Mr. Thomas said.

The growth has prompted the city to commit to rejuvenating Promenade Park on Summit Street with the hope of adding more events and programming there to make it a bustling site as it was in the 1980s. Without the Mud Hens and Walleye to bring people downtown, Mr. Thomas isn’t sure such a rejuvenation would have been approved.

Demand for residential space close to the two sports venues is so high, Mr. Thomas added, that most of apartment and loft spaces are now full, prompting discussions of additional residential development and demand for added downtown amenities.

Sandy Isenberg said she takes personal delight at the impact, economic and otherwise, that the Mud Hens’ move to downtown has had “because there’s a lot of people who said ‘You’re crazy for building the stadium downtown.’

Ms. Isenberg, a former president of the Lucas County Board of Commissioners, was on the governing body when the relocation of Fifth Third Field and the Mud Hens was approved. She said she and fellow commissioners, Mark Pietrykowski and the late Bill Copeland recognized that “it was time to bring the Mud Hens downtown” and that the combined city-county-community effort to make that happen ended up being a great decision in ways people never imagined.

“I think it’s brought people to downtown Toledo that probably hadn’t been downtown in 25 years or longer,” Ms. Isenberg said.

Contact Jon Chavez at: jchavez@theblade.com or 419-724-6128.



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