By The Herald Editorial Board
The Everett City Council, in a 6-0 decision, made the right call last week to put up $1.1 million for initial work in two separate contracts that will help keep the AquaSox High-A Minor League Baseball team in Everett, as professional baseball marks its 40th year in Everett.
The council authorized two contracts; a $344,000 agreement for project management, and a $807,000 pact for environmental impact evaluations of work to either remodel the AquaSox current home at Funko Field at Memorial Stadium, or build a new park at that location or at a site in downtown Everett near the Angel of the Winds Arena.
The council, at the suggestions of Council President Brenda Stonecipher, also intends to create a fiscal advisory committee for the project that could include representatives of the public, the city and county, the team and Everett Public Schools, which manages the use of Memorial Stadium and the baseball park.
The council’s actions — in its investment for initial work and its interest in keeping tabs on the project and its funding — recognize the importance of the baseball club to the city’s economy and its quality of life and the necessity to ensure a public-private partnership makes a significant investment for Everett and Snohomish County and keeps the process transparent and accessible.
Such an investment will be significant. The Seattle company hired as project manager has put a cost estimate of between $40 million and $80 million for either remodel or new construction. And other cities and communities considering their own stadium projects for their Minor League teams have cited potential costs between $80 million and $125 million.
Everett isn’t alone in looking to refurbish or build a new stadium; many of Minor League Baseball’s 120 teams are expected to enjoy new or remodeled parks in the next few years.
The building boom in minor league stadiums is the result of Major League Baseball’s decision to take more control of and make investments in its farm system, the High-A, Double-A and Triple-A teams where players are developed and prepare for play on Major League teams, such as the Seattle Mariners, whose affiliates include Everett and the Triple-A Tacoma Rainiers. Major League Baseball, in 2020, pared the number of affiliates it partners with from 162 teams to the current 120, in part to provide better pay to its players.
As late as 2019, there were reports that not just the AquaSox, but the entire Northwest League that it plays in, might be relegated to a “dream league” of independent teams without direct ties to Major League Baseball or its teams.
Everett and the Northwest League not only kept their affiliation with Major League Baseball, they were moved up from short season A to High-A with 132-game seasons. But the realignment meant the league was cut to six teams from eight, with teams in Boise and Salem, Ore., dropped and now playing in independent leagues.
At the same time as the realignment, Major League Baseball also informed the 120 affiliates that remained that they and their hometowns would be expected to meet minimum requirements for team facilities, requiring significant upgrades for most stadiums, fields and training facilities.
An example of the deficiencies at Funko Field; the clubhouses for home and visitors are cramped, outdated and located in a building a short walk from the stadium, rather than as part of the stadium, itself.
Paring down the league also gave Major League Baseball leverage to enforce the new stadium standards and put most clubs on a strict timeline for completion; with some 40 teams cut from the minor leagues, there are now an ample number of cities — two former Northwest League cities — who might take advantage if Everett did not move forward with stadium plans.
Already, the Hillsboro (Ore.) Hops have been informed by Major League Baseball that it has until March 15 to show it has secured funding for a new stadium. It has much of the $120 million needed for a new ballpark, but it is waiting on a pledge of $15 million from the Oregon state legislature in its budget, funding that may not be approved until near that deadline.
The Everett project has $7.4 million in state funding secured, adopted earlier this year by the Legislature, and between $5 million to $10 million in commitments from the AquaSox. Much more from private and public arenas must follow.
AquaSox co-owner Chad Volpe told the Everett council last week that the team currently is paying Major League Baseball an annual “six-figure fee” until it can show the project is well underway.
It would be easy to fault Major League Baseball for the hard-ball tactics it is using to get new or refurbished stadiums, but there is ample interest here for Everett and the larger region and its public and private partners to make this investment.
The economic benefit to the city, especially if one of two downtown sites were used, is easily compared to what the Angel of the Winds Arena and its convention center provides, according to an analysis by the City of Everett. In 2019, with a shorter season and about 40 home games, the AquaSox at Funko brought in $6.6 million in business revenue and another $2 million in labor revenue for 45 jobs, compared to Angel of the Winds’ $47.5 million in business revenue and $17.2 in labor income from 385 jobs.
Because a new stadium would be able to offer more dates for concerts, exhibitions and other events, the potential for added business at either of the two downtown locations could offer business revenue of between $45 million and $55 million and labor income between $17 million and $21 million from 360 to 440 jobs, the analysis estimates.
Other cities with minor league teams that have already built stadiums, including two visited by city officials and others in North Carolina and South Carolina, showed significant commercial and residential development that was planned or had already built up around the new stadiums, adding to the positive economic and quality-of-life impacts.
For 40 years — starting with the Everett Giants in 1984 and continued by the Mariners-affiliated AquaSox since 1995 — the presence of a Minor League Baseball team has provided a venerable pastime for baseball fans and families, and done so at prices far more affordable and at facilities more accessible than its Major League counterparts.
A new or refurbished stadium honors that legacy and can continue that relationship for decades to come.
Correction: This editorial has been updated to reflect the sites under consideration for environmental review.