In terms of traditional team sports, Atlantic City is not even in the minor leagues.
The city and state bankrolled four minor-league sports franchises during the casino gambling era, and all four times the efforts failed. Even for a trial-and-error approach lacking due diligence, that’s stunningly definitive.
Nonetheless, an attempt is being made to try a minor-league baseball team again in the city’s dilapidated Surf Stadium. The owner of the Surf baseball team that failed in 2009 after 11 years there has gotten permission from City Council to try to find owners willing to bring another team.
Council members say the effort won’t cost the city anything whether it succeeds or fails. They assume new owners would cover all of the costs, which would be substantial. Maybe.
After the Atlantic City Surf failed and the weak reason for the stadium’s existence disappeared, the city didn’t bother to maintain it — not even draining the water pipes in winter. Damage from that neglect, the elements on the back bay and vandalism was extensive.
The city committed to spending $1.1 million to repair the stadium. That got it into shape for a 2011 Atlantic City Summerfest hip-hop concert. The following year it hosted a Babe Ruth league regional tournament.
The 5,500-seat venue seemed to have some potential for tournaments and concerts, but since that hasn’t happened in the several years since, we assume not enough.
The repeated failure of minor-league franchises is not, as many have suggested, due to a lack of support by the casino companies or the residents of the region or the city’s visitors. The greater Atlantic City area simply has the wrong geography and demographics.
The Surf and their hockey peers, the Boardwalk Bullies, were appealing teams that provided good entertainment value and drew core groups of fans. But they had no chance of drawing anywhere near the number of fans required because of two simple facts — South Jersey isn’t nearly populated enough, and half of the circle defining an easy drive to their games is ocean with no people at all.
Some try to imagine that the millions of visitors to casinos and beaches would somehow make up for this fatal shortfall of possible customers. Hasn’t happened and will never happen because an Atlantic City team wouldn’t be their team even if they wanted a team to follow.
Now some think that maybe a team affiliated with a Major League Baseball team, preferably the Phillies, would do the trick. Still no. Such a team would cost more and require more support, which the geographic and demographic limits make even less possible.
Concerts, tournaments and such were the last possible sustainable use for the stadium. If the city has already pursued that and found it untenable, then the costly mistake of building the stadium should be admitted and it should be demolished to make way for a better, higher-value and more appropriate use of the last large tract of land on the doorstep to the city proper.
With Atlantic City beginning to rebound and the Stockton University campus nearby, the time is nearing to entertain development projects there that will build on the momentum.
Even if keeping the failed stadium didn’t require a dime of taxpayer money, as city politicians like to say, it could exact a heavy opportunity cost. The city and state shouldn’t miss the chance for something big, appropriate and valuable because they were playing small ball with no future.