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'Minor league cities' need new federal partnership

'Minor league cities' need new federal partnership
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Rep. David McKinleyDavid Bennett McKinleyEnergy secretary says pipeline setbacks pose national security issue MLB, Congress play hardball in fight over minor leagues Koch campaign touts bipartisan group behind ag labor immigration bill MORE (R-W.Va.), a member of the Tea Party Caucus, has earned an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association and 100 percent from the National Right to Life Committee. There probably aren’t many issues on which he and progressive Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersTlaib, Ocasio-Cortez offer bill to create national public banking system Cutting defense spending by 10 percent would debilitate America's military The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Election night could be a bit messy MORE (I-Vt.) see eye to eye.

Yet baseball is one. 

In response to reported plans to eliminate Major League Baseball affiliations with 42 minor league baseball clubs, McKinley recently joined Rep. Lori TrahanLori A. TrahanEthics panel finds Massachusetts Democrat didn't violate rules Democrats on House Armed Services panel 'dismayed and gravely concerned' with Esper The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Pfizer's Mikael Dolsten says vaccine development timeline being cut in half; House poised to pass 4 billion relief package MORE (D-Mass.), Rep. Mike SimpsonMIchael (Mike) Keith SimpsonDuring a time of uncertainty, Great American Outdoors Act deserves our support Dentists want coronavirus testing kits before reopening MLB, Congress play hardball in fight over minor leagues MORE (R-Idaho) and Rep. Max RoseMax RoseDemocrats seek wave to bolster House majority Centrist Democrats got their COVID bill, now they want a vote Lawmakers fear voter backlash over failure to reach COVID-19 relief deal MORE (D-N.Y.) to announce the formation of the Congressional Save Minor League Baseball Task Force. The announcement came a day after Sanders met with MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred to raise concerns about the plans. Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharFederal appeals court rules Minnesota must separate late-arriving mail-in ballots Trump announces intention to nominate two individuals to serve as FEC members Start focusing on veterans' health before they enlist MORE (D-Minn.) also has raised the issue.

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There are not a lot of causes that attract immediate, widespread bipartisan support in Congress these days. That’s why the task force and a letter sent to Manfred by more than 100 members of the House of Representatives is so noteworthy. It also points to an opportunity for an economic policy that goes beyond the baseball diamond.

In their letter, members from across the ideological spectrum protested that the plan would “devastate our communities,” citing the economic impact, because these teams “support scores of allied businesses (and) employ thousands of individuals.” The letter even suggested a fiscal impact, noting potential harm to “bond purchasers” as well.

Under the reported plan, affected teams would lose the direct affiliation that they have with major league teams: In theory, the clubs could continue to exist, but in many cases, the loss of affiliation could spell the end of baseball in these communities.

The impact of the loss of minor league baseball may be hard for people who live in large metropolitan areas to understand. After all, the baseball season is short, the number of home games is few, there are not that many permanent employees, and thus the impact likely is limited.

Economists over the years have raised significant concerns about building major league stadiums as a catalyst for economic development. The research on the impact of minor league baseball, however, points to a different set of conclusions. 

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Smith College economist Andrew Zimbalist, a researcher in sports economics, has noted that research suggests minor league teams and ballparks “had a positive, statistically significant effect on boosting an area’s income per capita.” 

Moreover, the issue here is not building ballparks or offering incentives. It is losing what these communities have. And the places targeted by Major League Baseball largely are those that have suffered other economic losses over the years. They are places that frequently have endured years of population and economic decline and are struggling to recover. For these places, losing a minor league team would be just another blow on top of others.

These are small and midsize places that often are overlooked when we talk about cities. All but three of the affected cities have populations under 200,000: the average population is just over 87,000 and most of the cities have fewer than 65,000 residents, including places such as Princeton and Bluefield in West Virginia, each with fewer than 10,000 residents. Of the 42 cities, 18 have experienced declines from their peak population and 10 are continuing to lose residents. Danville, Va., which had a 1990 population of just over 53,000 residents, now has a population of just over 40,000.

Based on data from the American Community Survey, the average poverty rate for these cities is over 20 percent — much higher than the national rate of 11.8 percent. These are not just places of the Rust Belt. Among the affected cities with the highest poverty rates are Daytona Beach, Fla. (28.1 percent), Jackson, Tenn. (24.1 percent) and Lancaster, Calif. (23.3 percent).

Whether congressional supporters strike out or hit a home run in their efforts to save minor league baseball in these cities, the reality is that many of these places need more than just minor league baseball to return to prosperity. They need the federal government to step up to the plate and be an active and full partner.

Before her death, economist Alice Rivlin wrote: “[A] new national economic strategy to bring better-paying jobs to the parts of the country that are falling behind is needed and could gain widespread voter support.” This really isn’t a new idea. It is the reason that the Economic Development Administration was created more than 50 years ago. 

In 1960, Democrats campaigned on a platform that “general economic measures will not alone solve the problems of localities which suffer some special disadvantage. To bring prosperity to these depressed areas, and to enable them to make their full contribution to the national welfare, specially directed action is needed. … Whole communities, urban and rural, have been left stranded in distress and despair, through no fault of their own. … Stricken communities deserve the help of the whole nation.”

Perhaps 2020 will be the year that both parties can unite behind this approach in ways that go beyond the national pastime. 

David R. Eichenthal is a managing director with PFM Group Consulting and the executive director of the National Resource Network, a consortium of urban policy experts working to empower local leadership in economically challenged cities nationally. He lives in Chattanooga where he roots for the AA Lookouts.