Diamond dreams – Part II – The Miller Park impact

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Miller Park has been golden for some, tarnished for others

It’s been over a year since the much-ballyhooed opening of Miller Park – a stadium whose retractable roof and modern amenities were to assure better times for Major League Baseball in Milwaukee and, consequently, greater economic benefits for the stadium area in general.
With the promise of no more weather-related stoppages or cancellations, Wisconsin lawmakers agreed to a system which involved a .1% local sales tax to help fund the stadium.
Those for the stadium and the tax argued that more people would be flooding the local economy with dollars that would more than make up for the modest increase in tax.
With the 2002 All-Star Game upon us, the question is: Has Miller Park been "the field of dreams" for local businesses or just another empty promise?
SBT went back and talked to several of the same business owners interviewed for a story in its March 16, 2001 issue. The businesses are located on either the Blue Mound Road corridor from 54th to 51st streets or from south 55th to 48th streets on National Avenue, across from the Veteran’s Administration grounds.


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For Santo Alioto and Paul Wong, it’s been the catalyst for business growth.
For Pat Guenther and Mike Pavlovich, it’s been a letdown.
It’s Miller Park, the $400 million stadium built to save Major League Baseball in Milwaukee, with the promise of economic benefit for the entire community.
But for some businesses, such as long-time Blue Mound Road mainstays Kelly’s Bleachers and Stadium Sports-Stuff, the hoped-for benefits haven’t materialized.
In fact, according to Kelly’s owner Pat Guenther, revenues at the bar actually decreased during the 2001 season compared with the prior year’s totals in a kind of reverse-Miller-Park effect.
"Last year, there was a decrease a little bit because of the newness of the park," Guenther said. "Everybody wanted to see the park, so instead of coming to my facility before the game to have dinner, they went down there to have dinner."
Mike Pavlovich, of Stadium Sports-Stuff, was cautiously optimistic last year about what Miller Park would mean to his business, which sells team jerseys, caps, baseballs and other sports-related items. He planned to keep his store open later on game days in an attempt to get fans to stop in and buy merchandise before moving on to the game.
"I did that for a while but it didn’t pay off, so I’m back to normal hours," Pavlovich said.
He and Guenther also mentioned the lingering effects of the Major League Players’ strike in 1994 as having soured the overall community on baseball.
"I think that put a bad taste in everybody’s mouth," Guenther said of the strike. "[It’s] the All-American sport. Everybody’s eyebrows went up and people thought, ‘How can these millionaires go on strike? God gave them a gift to play with, use it to your advantage, but don’t hurt the people that buy tickets and support your paycheck.’"
Last year Guenther had planned to add as many as 15 part-time workers to service the anticipated crowds before games. It turns out he didn’t have to hire any extra help on a regular basis last year or this year, with the exception of opening day, Chicago Cubs’ series and this year, for the All-Star Game.
"Last year, I thought that this was my retirement," Guenther said of his expectations for the financial impact of Miller Park on his business. "That park was going to do it all for me. It was a no-brainer, I thought. Obviously, I have to go back to the drawing board and make sure I protect the business."
Protecting the business includes offering a shuttle bus service to his customers "to keep up with the Joneses," as several other bars in the vicinity also offer free rides for their patrons.
The dwindling attendance this year – after a club record 2.8 million in 2001 – hasn’t helped area businesses, either. The Brewers are currently on pace to draw 1.96 million fans – an impressive number for a losing team – which would be the largest second-year drop in attendance at a new stadium ever. Unlike the Toronto Blue Jays and Cleveland Indians that turned losing clubs into winners after opening new ballparks, the Brewers languish in the cellar of the National League with one of the worst records in baseball.
According to the New York Times, only two of 13 teams that have built new parks over the last 13 years have maintained or increased attendance. Those two teams, the San Francisco Giants (Pac Bell Park) and the Seattle Mariners (Safeco Field) expect to attract 3.3 million and 3.6 million fans this season. Both teams are in contention to win their divisions and both feature an "X-factor" player. Seattle has Japanese sensation Ichiro Suzuki, who won the American League’s Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards in 2001, and San Francisco has Barry Bonds, who set the Major League record for home runs in a single season last year with 73.
Milwaukee hasn’t had an "X-factor" player since the days of Paul Molitor and Robin Yount.
Yes, the retractable dome at Miller Park guarantees that games will be played without weather delays and in relative comfort in April, May and September, but after a while, even the die-hard fans will have to wonder if Miller Park is worth it if the Brewers keep fielding a sub-standard team year after year.
The business owners take a philosophical view of the team’s success or failure: If they are successful, it’s the frosting on the cake; if they continue their losing ways, most of them have contingency plans.
It’s gold
For the relative newcomers to the Blue Mound Road and National Avenue strips, Miller Park has helped put them on the map with fans and customers.
Both Santo Alioto, of Santo Alioto’s Ball Club, and Paul Wong, of Long Wong’s Chinese-American Sports Bar & Restaurant, opened their restaurant-bars in 2000, at the time anticipating that would be the year Miller Park debuted. Each said their first year’s operations weren’t what they expected, but last year revenues increased by 50% at each facility.
They both give credit to Miller Park for attracting more fans that subsequently discovered their establishments.
"We’re getting a lot of people driving by, which has really helped me," Alioto said of his restaurant located in the lower level of the Best Western Woodsview Inn on 55th Street and National Avenue. "Once they come inside, they see the baseball look and then they get excited because they already have it in their system."
Wong agrees that more people know about Long Wong’s now, and last year he learned to cater to the baseball crowd on game days. He offered shuttle rides in the beginning of the 2001 season and continues to do so. And while he hopes the Brewers put a more competitive team on the field, his business plan didn’t depend on how well they do.
"When I took over the business I never bought it just to count on traffic from Miller Park," Wong says. "I’ve built up the other parts of our business like the parties and the regular business, so I was counting on Miller Park to be sort of the cream on the top."
Wong expanded his party room and his game room, which has increased those areas of his business.
Alioto said he’s keeping pace with the 2001 season and has started to offer tailgate parties inside his restaurant, which has murals and various baseball memorabilia decorating the walls. He also attracts a healthy crowd after the game, serving pizzas and appetizers to the post-game crowds. He’s also getting a healthy contingent of local fans as repeat customers who help spread the word about his place.
"People come in and love it and then they tell somebody," Alioto said of his word-of-mouth advertisers. "That to me is worth more than advertising in any paper or radio because I’ve done that and it never worked. All I have to do is get them in the door once and I’ve got them as a (repeat) customer."
Most of the businesses are treating the All-Star Game as they would opening day, although Wong said he would be raffling off tickets to the All-Star Game and an All-Star jacket as part of his All-Star week celebration.

July 5, 2002 Small Business Times, Milwaukee

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