Thomas Kelso, chairman ofr the Maryland Stadium Authority, reflects on 25 years at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun video)
Before Mayor Kurt Schmoke walked through the cast-iron gates into Oriole Park at Camden Yards for the stadium's inaugural game in 1992, he said the new ballpark would "help fulfill our dreams not only on the athletic field but in the field of economic development."
Twenty-five years later, the Orioles have yet to get to a World Series playing there, but Schmoke, now president of the University of Baltimore, said he'll feel "old and happy" attending Monday's season-opening Orioles game, partly because of the ballpark's impact downtown and elsewhere.
The red-brick park's retro design, urban location and overnight popularity made it stand out, transforming how big league baseball fields have been built — and where they are located — ever since. But others question the extent of the stadium's economic boost, and current and former state officials say more can be done to capitalize on the stadium's appeal.
"Oriole Park without question changed the whole paradigm on how stadiums are built in America," said John Moag Jr., the former chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority, which owns the ballpark. "It's time for a little refresher, though."
Many observers say Camden Yards has left some runners on base by not having more of an impact in the area around the ballpark, which loses some spirit and activity when the O's aren't playing there.
With the team's lease ending in five years, the Orioles and the Maryland Stadium Authority expect to begin talks in the near future. Everyone expects the Orioles to continue playing at Camden Yards given the club's deep Baltimore roots and commitment to the city, but everything else is on the table, from the lease terms to updates in and around the stadium complex.
The Orioles say the team also wants to foster initiatives to generate more buzz in the area, particularly using Camden Station, a 19th-century former train terminal that holds promise because of its elegance and proximity.
While most agree the stadium area needs more activity, the ballpark nonetheless has had a sizable impact.
Since Camden Yards opened in 1992, Baltimore secured a new NFL franchise, the Ravens, in 1996, replacing the lost Colts. It tripled the size of the nearby Baltimore Convention Center in 1997; moved the Ravens to what is now M&T Bank Stadium, adjacent to the ballpark; reopened the Hippodrome Theatre a few blocks away; and opened the Hilton Baltimore Inner Harbor Hotel, which looms over the left field, in 2008.
Horseshoe Casino Baltimore debuted several blocks south along Russell Street in 2014, and the city hopes to develop an entertainment district south of the stadiums, where already the next iteration of club and concert venue Hammerjacks is underway.
Until Camden Yards' arrival, "a lot of growth momentum was going east towards the aquarium area, Little Italy, Fells Point," Schmoke said. "What I said in the '90s, which I think is coming true, is that the west side would start to develop also. You've got things like the Hippodrome. They are coming slowly."
Some of that development also limited options for fans, said Janet Marie Smith, who has overseen stadium improvements in Baltimore, Boston and Los Angeles.
"The kind of spirited neighborhood you see around Fenway Park in Boston, Petco in San Diego, [Chicago's] Wrigley, in Denver — that's the kind of urban energy that I think Camden Yards strives for but it is limited by its big-box neighbors," said Smith, the Los Angeles Dodgers' senior vice president of planning and development.
Since Camden Yards was built, other cities such as San Diego have helped surround sports venues with stores and vibrant nightlife, broadening the experience for fans and generating more tax dollars. Studies have shown fans, particularly millennials, increasingly prefer entertainment options beyond passively watching a game.
"Up until the 1990s, team owners had the view of capturing all the revenues. You didn't want competition on the outside, which is kind of how casinos used to look at things," Moag said. "That really started to change. You want to make that experience as special as possible."
To address that, the stadium authority has begun discussing a number of proposals with the Orioles for attracting more people to the immediate stadium area, even on nongame days, said Thomas Kelso, the authority's current chairman.
"What we've done over the past 25 years has been great," Kelso said. "But I don't think we need to be in that box."
Making the area more pedestrian-friendly and providing more activities would better link it to the downtown and to convention business, said William H. Cole IV, the former city council member who now leads the Baltimore Development Corp., which is leading efforts to spur the entertainment district.
Oriole Park's location was designed to enhance — in effect, expand — the reborn Inner Harbor while being convenient for fans in Washington, which did not then have its own team.
"The primary argument in favor of an urban location was that by attracting hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of patrons into the city they in turn would help generate economic activity to hotels, restaurants, retailers and boost the economic energy of the city," said Alan Rifkin, who is now counsel to the Orioles, but earlier served as chief counsel to then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer.
Schaefer was Baltimore's mayor when the Colts fled Baltimore for Indianapolis in the dead of night 33 years ago last week. The Colts left partly because the city and state wouldn't commit to replacing the aging Memorial Stadium, where both the Colts and the Orioles played, and Schaefer wasn't about to let the O's go.
"He knew what that meant to the civic confidence of the city," Rifkin said.
After Edward Bennett Williams, then the Orioles owner, testified that a new sports complex was needed not only to attract an NFL team but to keep the Orioles economically viable, state lawmakers approved both stadiums in 1987.
The state built Oriole Park at a cost of $106.5 million, plus $99.9 million for site acquisition. Another $18.6 million was spent for related costs, including restoration of the warehouse and Camden Station. The Orioles leased the ballpark for 30 years — through 2021 — and have an option to extend the lease for five more years.
Weighing the benefits
A quarter-century after Camden Yards opened, there is still debate over the economic benefits of the state's investment.
"I wouldn't deny that there are real emotional, psychological and, I would call them, economic benefits because economics is about people's happiness as much as anything," said Dennis Coates, a professor of economics at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "It's just that these benefits are incredibly difficult to measure. And the things that we can measure don't show up. Number of jobs? It doesn't do anything for jobs. Income? It didn't do anything for income."
Coates and others believe professional sports teams often hype expected benefits because "they're selling something."
"I do hear people say the opening of Oriole Park jump-started redevelopment for the entire city and I think that's an exaggeration," said Louis Miserendino, a visiting fellow with the Maryland Public Policy Institute. "You don't have to look far to see it hasn't translated into an influx of development even within a mile or quarter-mile of the ballpark."
Schmoke, who served three terms as mayor, has heard those arguments before, but said "there are certain types of activities that bring such important intangible benefits that they are worth investing in."
John Angelos, the Orioles' executive vice president, said: "If Camden Yards isn't a great investment, then no sports facility is because you're talking about it approaching 70 million people. No one ever projected that. If the Orioles had averaged a couple million a year, that would have been considered a success."
The stadium has drawn 67.3 million fans in 1,974 dates — an average of about 2.7 million a season and 34,000 per game, according to the club.
In their last 10 seasons at Memorial Stadium, the Orioles dipped below 2 million in attendance four times. The team topped 3 million in nine of its first 10 seasons at the new stadium. Attendance declined after that as the club endured 14 straight losing seasons ending in 2012.
"We're in the best sport for generating economic tourism. It's a high-volume, low price-point sport," said Angelos, citing the number of game days and the relative ticket affordability.
Spending associated with games at Oriole Park averaged $331.3 million in the 2014 and 2015 seasons, according to a recent study for the stadium authority by Crossroads Consulting, a Florida firm. The ballpark supported an average of 2,440 jobs each year, it said. And the games generated about $22.5 million in state tax revenues over the two years.
The authority is talking with the Orioles about jointly funding a new master plan focusing on the the stadium and warehouse area, Kelso said. The authority, he added, is open to working with the city to extend that planning outside Camden Yards' footprint.
For now though, the authority is talking about a number of proposals with the team in and around Oriole Park, Kelso said. One might be post-game concerts near Camden Station. The former home of the Sports Legends Museum, some of the building is currently leased month to month to Geppi's Entertainment Museum while the stadium authority considers its options.
Another proposal would relocate the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network's production studios from the warehouse to Camden Station so fans could watch programming.
The goal would be to create some of the energy found on game days on Eutaw Street, the plaza between the stadium and the warehouse, where fans mingle and the smell of barbecue and hot dogs permeates the air.
"It's not impossible that there could be a venue inside the stadium that is open every day of the year so that people can come, they can see into the stadium," Kelso said. "Maybe it's a bar or restaurant — something that gets people in the habit of coming to Camden Yards for something other than just a sporting event."
While Dempsey's Brew Pub & Restaurant in the warehouse opens onto Eutaw Street and offers a glimpse of the baseball field, Kelso is thinking of something even more connected to the ballpark.
In nearby neighborhoods, where there were fears about traffic congestion and noise before the ballpark opened, Oriole Park is generally perceived as an asset.
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"Nothing really came true about what we anticipated — not being able to get home and having detours," said Sharon Reuter, president of the neighborhood association in Ridgley's Delight, a small neighborhood next to Camden Yards. "We are able to get in and out of the neighborhood pretty easily."
Reuter said the neighborhood relies on parking enforcement officers to keep fans from parking illegally. "As long as they have the manpower to do ticketing and towing, then that works out."
As for noise, she said, it's not all bad.
"Yes, you can hear the cheers and the crack of the bat if you're in the yard. But it's not like a terrible noise. It's like a party. We can almost tell what's a double, or what's a single and a home run."