Friday, November 30, 2007

The Dome Dilemma

Speaking of Larry Langford, Birmingham's new mayor is a big supporter of a domed stadium for our community. In fact, he already has proposed a tax plan that would help fund a dome.

Civic leaders have been discussing a domed stadium for 10 years or more. But before Langford moves forward with his plan, he needs to check out this story.

Major-league baseball's Tampa Bay Rays plan to build a new 34,000-seat open-air waterfront stadium with a retractable roof. The new facility will cost $450 million.

And what about Tropicana Field, the 17-year-old domed stadium where the Rays have been playing? Plans call for redeveloping the site into a mixed-use development of homes, shops, and offices. According to this story, the land that Tropicana Field rests upon is of great value. The stadium itself? Apparently it's not worth much more than a warm cup of spit.

And that's the truth Birmingham leaders seem to be ignoring. Domed stadiums are yesterday's news. They are being vacated, imploded, or redeveloped all over the country. People want to watch sporting events in open-air facilities, with retractable roofs as insurance against bad weather. People finally are realizing that domed stadiums are lousy places to watch a baseball, football, or basketball game. In fact, they aren't a good place to watch anything.

But retractable-roof stadiums are too expensive, some say. Well, the Tampa facility includes a fabric that sounds like it is less expensive than previous options. That stadium is expected to cost $450 million, and Langford is calling for a $500 million plan in Birmingham. The Langford plan involves more than a dome, but the dome is the big piece, and the Tampa story makes it seem that a retractable-roof facility would be feasible here.

Heck, the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, home to the Arizona Cardinals of the NFL, is considered absolute state of the art. And its price tag was $455 million.

But we need a multipurpose facility, Birmingham leaders say, a place where we can have sporting events and conventions. Again, multipurpose facilities, so popular in the '60s and '70s, are being bulldozed all over the country.

If Birmingham needs convention space, build a convention center. If it needs a sports facility, one that would replace ancient Legion Field, build a sports facility. An open-air stadium with a retractable roof would be the best plan to address both of those needs.

If the city can't afford to do it right, then I would suggest building the convention component and sprucing up Legion Field. Yes, it's not in a great part of town, but it's still a good place to watch a football game--much better than a dome would be.

Here's what makes no sense about a dome in Birmingham: Presumably the No. 1 sporting attraction would be college football--UAB, a bowl game, Alabama A&M vs. Alabama State, etc. The worst environment for college football in the country is in New Orleans, where Tulane plays in the Superdome. The second worst environment is at Minnesota, where the Gophers play in the godawful Metrodome.

One of the best things about college football in the South is the fall weather. Ninety percent of the time, it's beautiful. And you want people to go indoors to watch games?

Birmingham leaders need to consider the experience of East Tennessee State University. Students several months ago voted down a proposal that would have brought football back to the campus. The sport was dropped four years ago during a budget crunch because of escalating costs and declining attendance.

According to news reports, one of the major reasons for declining attendance was the school's domed stadium, which was home to the football team. Fans had come to consider it an unattractive place to watch football and stayed away in droves. A key part of the new proposal was funding for an open-air stadium.

Legal Schnauzer's message: Listen up Larry, ditch the dome and raise the roof. Open air is where it's at.

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