It's a Thursday night during Cardinals' postseason, and the FOX Sports Midwest Live! bar at Ballpark Village is packed. It's standing room only, and everyone's gaze is fixed on the bar's 40-foot LED screen, watching St. Louis take on the San Francisco Giants in Game 5 of the series. A sea of people, hundreds dressed in their best red and white, fill both floors of the cavernous 20,000-square-foot bar, with others coming and going from the attached restaurant Cardinals Nation. The PBR bar is going strong upstairs, and there's even an outdoor watch party convening on the lawn of Busch-II-Infield. With the game going on at AT&T Park in San Francisco, it's clear that tonight — for sheer spectacle, anyway — the next best place for a Cards fan to be is Ballpark Village.
It's the top of the fourth and the Giants lead 2-1. Cardinals first baseman Matt Adams steps up to the plate. Madison Bumgarner sends a 73 mph curveball toward the plate, and Adams smashes it out to right field. The crowd at FOX Sports watches on the enormous screen as the ball sails higher and higher until it's finally lost in the stands.
There's an explosion of cheers, and strobe-like lights flash around the massive screen. Hundreds of rally towels spin in the air. Fans of all ages, strangers before this moment, turn to one another and high-five.
"Let's go Cardinals!" an emcee booms into a microphone.
The crowd is not unlike the one that would surely be next door at Busch Stadium if it were a home game: young children and their parents, grandparents, college kids, young professionals, middle-aged suburbanites. Just a year ago, this same throng would have been dispersed among many bars in the vicinity of Busch Stadium, such as Mike Shannon's, Kilroy's, Lucas Park Grille, Joe Buck's — stalwarts, some of whom had been downtown since the 1980s. But ever since the massive entertainment complex that is Ballpark Village opened its doors in March, many St. Louisans switched up their game-day plans, eager to check out the shiny new bars, the "Sky High" nachos, slurp cocktails out of party bowls and ride PBR's mechanical bull.
"Before it opened, I used to go to Paddy O's, but the last time I went there it was dead," says Paul Conboy, a fan who lives just down the street. "Mike Shannon's, too."
"We come to Ballpark Village for the energy," his friend Jackie Harz chimes in.
The Cardinals continue to hold off the Giants for several innings — it looks good, like St. Louis may survive until Game 6. In the bottom of the ninth, the score is tied. The Cardinals need to make it to extra innings or the season is over. Michael Wacha is sent to the mound; it's his first appearance in the postseason. Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval gets a single off of him. Next, Wacha walks first baseman Brandon Belt, putting him on first and Sandoval on second.
First baseman Travis Ishikawa takes the plate around 10:15 p.m. The count is 2-0. Wacha throws a fastball, and Ishikawa swings. There's a crack, and the ball flies high into the air and beyond right field. And just like that, it's all over for the Cardinals and their 2014 season.
It also brings to a close the first season of business at Ballpark Village.
Outside, as the throngs slowly filter out into the night, Busch Stadium looms dark and empty. On Market Street, Mike Shannon's is all but deserted. Down Clark Avenue, there's a similarly quiet scene at Joe Buck's. A year ago, there would have been dozens of fans pouring out of every venue between Broadway and Tucker, all the way over to Washington Avenue. But tonight, the steady stream of departing Cardinals fans are all coming from the behemoth Ballpark Village.
In its rookie season, Ballpark Village boasted 3 million visitors, and it's not all just been for baseball. Bosnian soccer fans flocked to the entertainment complex to watch the 2014 FIFA World Cup, and the cheering blue-and-yellow-clad crowd made national news. When baseball season began in March, it became clear as the summer went on that Ballpark Village was the new downtown draw. And not everyone is happy about it.
"This is St. Louis. Money doesn't get created — this is not Chicago. That means those sales had to come from somewhere else," says Amer Hawatmeh, general manager of Copia Restaurant & Wine Garden on Washington Avenue. "They come from every other small business in the downtown area. They created a black hole, and they sucked it all up. Ballpark Village should have brought more business to St. Louis, but what it did is cannibalize all the little guys."
The argument over the economic sense of the entertainment complex has raged for years. In 2007, Mayor Francis Slay told a meeting of the board of aldermen that Ballpark Village "will help us with our efforts to revitalize downtown. It will help us with our convention and our tourism business and help us create more opportunities for new construction in downtown St. Louis." However, back in 2002, a projection from the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center estimated that Missouri businesses would lose $1.85 million a year for the next 30 years owing to "reallocation of consumer spending" to Ballpark Village.
Seven months into its existence and after one season of Cardinals baseball, the real-life impact of the project is beginning to emerge, and small-business owners living in its shadow — the ones who bank on brisk business during the Cardinals season to make it through the slow winter months — are some of the loudest critics.
"They are experiencing a downturn in the business, and it's beginning to uptick again, and they're taking steps to entice more people to come," says Ward 7 alderwoman Phyllis Young. "I think, right now, the growing pains are there."
On March 27, St. Louis Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt Jr., flanked by Missouri governor Jay Nixon, Mayor Slay and State Senator Jamilah Nasheed, held an oversize pair of scissors and clipped a giant red ribbon at the entrance to 601 Clark Avenue. Slay declared it "Ballpark Village Day."
"Let's play ball!" he called to the assembled crowd, which began pouring in shoulder to shoulder to explore. Hours later, the band Third Eye Blind played a free concert on one of five stages. The festivities went on all weekend, culminating with a FOX Sports watch party for the Cardinals' season opener at Cincinnati on March 31.
While taking in the gleaming, state-of-the art complex today, it's hard to believe that the earliest roots of the project date back nearly twenty years, when the Cardinals began lobbying for a new stadium. The state of Missouri signed an agreement for a new stadium in 2001, and the term "Ballpark Village," referring to an adjacent, mixed-use complex, was being promoted within the year. The Maryland-based real estate and entertainment district developer Cordish Company partnered with the Cardinals to propose a project for St. Louis similar to ones it had done in other markets, such as Kansas City's Power & Light District. It was originally billed as a true village — a $650 million, 250,000-square-foot mixed-used complex of offices and apartments combined with the retail and entertainment spaces. By bringing in new residents, Ballpark Village would be adding to the customer base and repopulating the downtown area, rather than merely stealing customers from existing businesses. It would be a place to live, work and play. At one point, there was even discussion of an aquarium.
Busch Stadium III opened in 2006, and while the Cardinals scooped up a World Series that year, next door the mixed-use project was about to miss an important deadline. In order to qualify for public subsidies, Cordish promised to build at least one block of the village by 2007 or pay the city $3 million a year in fines. But as the project fell further and further behind, the St. Louis Board of Aldermen repeatedly extended that deadline.
In order to get Ballpark Village moving again, Cardinals president Bill DeWitt III and Cordish scaled down the first phase by about half. Groups like the Coalition Against Public Funding for Stadiums and St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bill McClellan were some of the most vocal critics of the alterations and tax breaks.
"Ballpark Village was a fraud from the beginning," McClellan wrote. "We [are] going to give public money and tax breaks to national chains that would then compete against local downtown restaurants that have been paying taxes and employing people for years."
Major tenants pulled out, and the area next to Busch Stadium languished as a softball field and massive parking lot.
"It's just maddening to see what I would call the total failure of this project," Alderman Scott Ogilvie told Riverfront Times in August 2013. "It is completely unacceptable that the citizens of St. Louis have been asked to subsidize two themed bars [and a parking lot]."
But after many fits and starts (and $100 million), ground finally broke in February 2013, and almost immediately, 85 percent of the 120,000-square-foot space was leased. Cardinals Nation, FOX Sports Midwest Live! and the Cardinals Hall of Fame were announced as tenants, eventually to be joined by the Budweiser Brewhouse, PBR St. Louis, Howl at the Moon piano bar, Drunken Fish and Ted Drewes. Within a year, the doors were open, thanks to financing from U.S. Bank and $17 million in subsidies. As of now, there are no residences or office space.
"I think what's probably going on is, the developers are looking at building the things they've planned to build and are getting revenue right now to support that effort by having the entertainment complex there first," says Alderwoman Young. "What do you put in there first — offices and housing, or entertainment? It's the chicken and the egg."
In June 2013 restaurateur Bernie Lee made a big leap, moving his small sushi restaurant Hiro from the Delmar Loop to Washington Avenue. He poured thousands into modern décor, giving the reimagined Hiro Asian Kitchen a kind of Hong Kong nightclub chic. The new eatery opened to critical praise and booming business.
"During conventions, I remember we used to be jam-packed with visitors," Lee recalls. "Reservation after reservation."
Then, Lee says, something unexpected happened when Ballpark Village opened its doors. Not only were the smaller sports bars emptying out, the downtown dining crowd evaporated, too.
"It is like a ghost town," he says.
By one measure, Lee is lucky — he's still open for business. Since Ballpark Village's opening day, Lola, a live-music venue and restaurant, closed its doors in June. A co-owner told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch at the time that "Ballpark Village has a lot to do with it. It's definitely driving business away." Jive & Wail, a piano bar on Washington, also closed. Though management would not directly blame Ballpark Village, the piano bar faced direct competition from Howl at the Moon. Jive & Wail is relocating to Westport Plaza.
Chris Dorr, owner of Paddy O's, a sports bar which is only open for a few hours before, during and after home games, told the St. Louis Business Journal in June that his business had been cut in half thanks to Ballpark Village. The 100,000-square-foot bar next to Busch Stadium usually brings in $2.5 million in revenue; this year Dorr said he'd be lucky to get $1.3 million.
Across the street at Flying Saucer, general manager Rebecca Keiffer told the Journal business is down 20 to 25 percent.
"[Ballpark Village] can do a lot of things, not just baseball — yoga, family-movie night. They have a lot of money and can do a lot that we can't," says Lee. "Before, when people came downtown it was all about Washington Avenue. Now? It's all about Ballpark Village."
Copia manager Hawatmeh says out-of-towners were its core customer base, but the new neighbors have taken much of that away. Copia's business is down 22 percent, but he claims to have heard that other bars and restaurants are down as much as 75 percent. He says the Ballpark Village effect is being felt at establishments in a five- to ten-mile radius.
Eddie Neill, owner of multilevel Irish bar the Dubliner, says he and the rest of the Washington Avenue business owners knew what was coming but weren't sure how to prepare. Neill says he brought in substantially less revenue during 2014 compared to past years, but he wouldn't specify how much less. He says Cordish got a foot in the door with its mixed-use proposal, then just rolled out a smaller project that nets a quicker profit.
"They go to the cities, say they're going to have a mixed-use property," he says. "Then when they open up, it all has to do with the most amount of income per square foot, which is bars, bars and a little bit of food. They get huge numbers."
This reputation as a corporate cannibal, an enemy to the local economy, is very different from the image the Cardinals and the city want for Ballpark Village. As it has for years, Cordish touts the 2,000 permanent jobs added to the downtown area and millions in revenue for the city. It also wants Ballpark Village to be seen as part of the revitalization of St. Louis instead of killing other surrounding business.
"I really feel downtown is better off by having yet another destination that's committed to creative events and a reason for people to come down here," says Missy Kelley, chief operating officer at Downtown STL Inc. (formerly known as the Partnership for Downtown St. Louis). "We also know that people who have come down for a game, come down earlier and stay longer. Getting people down here is half the battle. Once they're here, there's the opportunity for them to enjoy the other assets downtown has to offer."
Cordish representatives have insisted that Ballpark Village is just phase one of its development plan, and the residential and office space phase is coming. However, most talk of that seems to have stopped.
Cordish answered an interview request from Riverfront Times with this statement:
"We have been thrilled at the response to the first phase of Ballpark Village and are now excited for Live! season. We have only been open for seven months and have welcomed over 3 million people from all over the region...so far. We now have more than 150 events planned during Live! season which will continue draw people to Ballpark Village and downtown during the winter months. We are continuing with that momentum and starting to focus on [programing] the next phase. We are committed to developing the premier mixed-use district in the region and look forward to releasing more details on the next phase soon."
Ballpark Village chief operating officer Jim Watry says the goal is to make the city a destination — a family looking for something to do on a Saturday may visit the Arch or stop at the City Museum in addition to visiting Ballpark Village. And he argues the complex's success from the past seven months is not merely from stealing other people's business, it's from generating its own crowds by offering a variety of events and experiences that will appeal to different demographics.
"We're not taking part of the existing pie, we're making the pie bigger for everybody," Watry says. "Between now and the first pitch of opening day, we've got a million-dollar marketing and production budget to support 100 events. The plan all along was to be very, very active all year long. We have a partnership with the Rams, we do a lot of stuff with the Blues, even World Cup watch parties. Families, sports fans, dining fans, nightclub fans — it's got a wide appeal."
And not everyone agrees that Ballpark Village's presence is hurtful. Popular Clayton sports bar the Wheelhouse opened its second location just steps from Busch Stadium in July, and co-owner Stephen Savage says there hasn't been any problem filling the 10,000-square-foot space.
"It's probably just people that don't want to deal with Ballpark Village. They want something that's just a different product — that's us," he says. "We've got such a great network and great customer base that's very loyal, and being locally owned and operated, it gives us a different competitive advantage that they don't have."
Regardless of any complaints, two things are certain: First, that Ballpark Village is here and, at least in the very near future, it isn't going anywhere. The second is that however it transforms downtown, it's all a vast improvement on the downtown of decades past.
"In the '80s, you and I would not have walked down Washington Avenue," says Hawatmeh. "Until 1993, Washington Avenue was known for two things: drugs and prostitution. And that's the last thing we want in this area."
Business owners are trying to transition from lamenting their lost business to finding solutions. Neill says he has met with Alderwoman Young; Don Roe, the city's director of planning and urban design; Downtown STL Inc.; and others in an effort to come up with a positive plan for the rest of downtown.
"In retrospect, Ballpark Village may be a gift for all of us to think more about our clientele and what we're doing," Neill says. "As far as I'm concerned, it's going to help in the long run in the viability of the area. I think something new can be created for the city."
One such adaptive measure is a new event called STLive, a Friday night music extravaganza in the district where 21 Washington Avenue bars and restaurants host local bands and run drink specials. Neill says that event has upped the Dubliner's Friday night sales by 28 percent. The downtown business association has also met (so far unsuccessfully) with city officials to try to relax parking-ticket enforcement on downtown streets as a means of attracting more visitors. Solutions like these — which will require the cooperation of city government — are what independent business owners say they need to bounce back from the revenue-draining hype of Ballpark Village.
And, at the end of the day, the Davids of the downtown business district don't truly want to defeat Goliath.
"We don't want Ballpark Village to fail, either — then it's even a bigger issue," says Hawatmeh. "We don't want anything to fail. We want everything to succeed, and that's the message I want to get across."
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