Thirty years ago, a generation of ballparks was born in downtown Baltimore. Last month, the top executives for both the Orioles and the state of Maryland visited an Atlanta suburb to get a brainstorming glimpse at what might be the next.
On his 51st day in office, Maryland Gov. Wes Moore took his first visit out of state, accompanying Orioles CEO and Chairman John Angelos on a tour of Truist Park, home of the Atlanta Braves. The ballpark, which opened in 2017 within an entertainment district known as The Battery, has been viewed by many as a prototype for the future of baseball stadiums.
It attracted 10 million visitors in 2022, according to the Braves, and has offices, apartments, hotels, bars, restaurants and a concert venue on the same grounds as the MLB park. As the Orioles — soon to be flush with funds from the state to improve Camden Yards — mull ways to renovate the ballpark and its surrounding area in the coming years, The Battery could provide inspiration.
The Orioles played their home opener Friday in front of a hopeful crowd, fielding what many expect to be their best team in years. They’ll do so, however, with uncertainty looming over the club: The team’s lease with the state, which owns Oriole Park, expires at the end of this year.
That lease binds the club to Baltimore, and while it’s immensely unlikely the team would actually relocate, a long-term agreement is still an essential order of business. The sides have negotiated for years and as the eleventh hour approaches, Angelos and Moore have assured fans that a long-term lease will soon be finalized. Once it is, the Maryland Stadium Authority will be able to improve the ballpark with up to $600 million in public funds approved by the state last year.
The core tenet of a would-be lease — that is, the terms and conditions of the Orioles remaining at Camden Yards — is not what has prolonged the negotiation process, Angelos told reporters in February. Instead, focus has been on other details, including the specifics of creating a commercial real estate development in the Camden Yards complex that attracts visitors year-round.
“That’s gonna be a huge step forward for the next iteration of Camden Yards,” Angelos said.
Less than three weeks after those comments, Angelos embraced Moore in Atlanta as the two visited The Battery, searching for ideas to bring back to Baltimore.
The Battery has been applauded, but its economic value is debatable
There are bars and restaurants near many pro venues, but the Atlanta development has been heralded as a class of its own.
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred told The Associated Press in 2017, when Truist Park opened, that it would be a “watershed” event for baseball. He compared its influence to how Camden Yards launched decades of traditional, downtown ballparks in the 1990s.
“There has never been something this massive around a baseball stadium, and it’s really an amazing accomplishment,” Manfred said of The Battery.
After playing just 20 years at Turner Field, built for the 1996 Summer Olympics and located in downtown Atlanta, the Braves left for suburban Cobb County in 2017. In key ways, their model is incongruent with Camden Yards: The venue is 10 miles from downtown Atlanta and is not easily accessible by public transit.
The Orioles declined an interview request for this article, but Angelos has said Atlanta is the “best example” of a year-round development. In a joint statement this year, the Orioles, Moore and the stadium authority said they looked forward to “re-imagining Camden Yards to deliver a live-work-play theme.”
“The idea is to start thinking out loud about what the area surrounding the Orioles complex can look like,” new stadium authority Chair Craig Thompson said in March. “The Battery area and Braves stadium is looked at and admired by some as a model.”
The footprints in Baltimore and Atlanta are comparable in size. The Battery is nearly 80 acres (the main campus, including the ballpark, is 57 acres) and the stadium authority-owned Camden Yards complex is 85 acres. Of course, half of that land is occupied by the stadiums. M&T Bank Stadium is 20 acres, Oriole Park is 21 acres and Camden Station is 27 acres, per property records. The remaining 17 acres include several parking lots.
The Battery, although criticized for being generic, has mostly been applauded from a fan standpoint. Speaking with reporters in February, Moore praised the development’s walkability.
With a 4,000-person concert venue, two hotels, shops, a Topgolf and movie theater, in addition to restaurants, it attracts visitors even on nongame days.
The economic benefit it has provided Cobb County is a subject for debate, however. Economists almost always warn against using public money for stadium subsidies and although the Braves spent over $1 billion on Truist Park and The Battery, Cobb County still contributed more than $300 million.
The decision was unpopular enough locally that the county commissioner who orchestrated the deal and billed it as a “home run for Cobb County” lost his next election in a landslide, in large part because of the sizable public contribution to the stadium.
Kennesaw State University economist J.C. Bradbury, a Cobb County resident, published a report in 2022 describing the deal as more of a “routine pop fly” than a “home run.” He found that the development has not produced an economic benefit to the county at all but, instead, has cost residents $15 million a year.
“Cobb’s experience with Truist Park has been similar to most other stadium projects, which fail to generate large economic benefits to host communities,” Bradbury wrote, describing the result as “economic impotence.”
He also said the bulk of the revenue produced in The Battery comes from the stadium itself, not from the mixed-use development surrounding it.
Shortly after Bradbury’s report, Braves Chairman Terry McGuirk commissioned another economist, Smith College’s Andrew Zimbalist, to publish a report. Zimbalist rejected Bradbury’s findings and said the ballpark has, in fact, produced a positive economic benefit.
Zimbalist told The Baltimore Sun, though, that even though he’s found The Battery to be “an economic success in Cobb County, Georgia,” that has no bearing on how a similar concept might work in Baltimore.
Bradbury and Zimbalist have clashed, but one thing they — and other economists who study stadiums — agree on, however, is that the significant public contribution toward the stadiums in Baltimore will not benefit the state’s taxpayers in the long run. Large stadium subsidies essentially never do, economists have found.
Maryland has set aside $1.2 billion for improvements to Oriole Park and M&T Bank Stadium, which is one of the larger stadium subsidies in history.
“[This] appears to be one of the worst financial deals in recent memory,” Zimbalist said.
Bradbury has repeatedly studied the downsides of publicly funding stadiums, which remains a common practice nationally. He calls it a “curious example of persistent government failure.”
Regardless of the economic benefit to the public, the stadium authority is expected to have $600 million to renovate Oriole Park and the surrounding area (the three-person Board of Public Works, which includes Moore, has to sign off on any plans).
A substantial portion of that money will be used to update 31-year-old Oriole Park. Removing seats and creating gathering spaces is one likely change. But some of those dollars could help turn the area around the ballpark into a lively district, akin to the one in Cobb County.
Camden Yards meets the next generation
The vision of Oriole Park was always to create an active environment in the middle of the city. Janet Marie Smith, who helped design the park in the early 1990s, recently described it as “an anchor in downtown Baltimore.”
“The original goal in putting Oriole Park at Camden Yards downtown was to populate the urban core, take advantage of existing infrastructure and use the millions of fans who came to baseball games to populate the restaurants, the hotel rooms, the aquarium, the science center, all of the things that had become real attractions in downtown Baltimore,” said Smith, who has also worked on ballpark projects with the Braves, Boston Red Sox and, currently, the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Larry Lucchino was the president of the Orioles during the construction of Oriole Park. In a recent interview, he noted the influence of Camden Yards: “I would think that the people who are at Truist Park would go to Camden Yards,” he said.
Michael Friedman, a lecturer in the kinesiology department at the University of Maryland, College Park, is writing a book called “Mallparks: Baseball Stadiums and the Culture of Consumption.” At a mallpark — a portmanteau of a shopping mall, theme park and ballpark — visitors don’t just watch a baseball game, they’re entertained in myriad ways.
“Camden Yards is kind of that first mallpark, whereas Truist Park is the model going forward,” Friedman said. At Oriole Park, entertainment is largely contained within the stadium’s gates; at Truist Park, the activity spills outside and surrounds the park.
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Other stadiums have recently moved in this direction. The Ballpark Village, a partnership between the Cardinals and The Cordish Cos. opened in 2014 in downtown St. Louis. The Cordish Cos. built a similar concept in Arlington, Texas, home of the Texas Rangers, in 2018.
Lucchino was president of the San Diego Padres and Red Sox and oversaw their stadium construction and renovation projects. He said ballpark districts are “in general, a positive thing,” but “it’s got to be well-planned and authentic.”
“You just gotta be a little careful when you’re looking for ideas in other places,” he said.
With the Horseshoe Casino, Topgolf, the National Aquarium and newly refurbished CFG Bank Arena, plus the Paramount concert venue under construction near the Baltimore stadiums, the bones of an entertainment district are present. Adding urban infill in the form of more bars and restaurants could boost the district.
Angelos has said it will take several years to create the desired “live-work-play” environment that he and the stadium authority envision. It’s unknown specifically how the area will be developed, but Moore told reporters a priority is to “make sure that there’s economic energy that’s taking place around the ballpark.”
Friedman, the “Mallparks” author, said that Camden Yards is a “major piece” in making Baltimore’s downtown “vibrant” again. However, he also cited the importance of the state being careful regarding the finances of the project. Historically speaking, “there’s been a tendency for the profits to be privatized and the risk to be socialized,” he said.
“This [$1.2 billion] is not going to fix downtown Baltimore,” Friedman said. “It isn’t the panacea. But done right, it could be part of the solution.”