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Mayor looks for ballpark tenants
by Will Lingo
The Ozark Expos?
It might have happened if things had gotten desperate for Major League Baseball this offseason in its efforts to find a home for its orphan franchise.
See, the town of Ozark, Mo.—population 13,600—has a bit of a white elephant on its hands. Price Cutter Park, which opened in 1999, has already been abandoned in anticipation of a Texas League franchise coming to nearby Springfield.
Donna McQuay, the mayor of Ozark, doesn't plan to take this turn of events lying down. She's out beating the bushes for another team to play in the ballpark, which has seats for 4,500 and a capacity of 6,200 with a grass berm. "I'm one of those optimists," she said. "I always feel the worst thing anyone call tell me is no."
So she dropped an e-mail to the powers that be at MLB and told them if things didn't work out in Washington, D.C., they were welcome in Missouri. It may not be Las Vegas, but you're only a half-hour drive from Branson. And would playing in Price Cutter Park be any more ridiculous than playing in Hiram Bithorn Stadium?
But that's not really the point. The more interesting development is that a city with a practically new ballpark has no team to play in it. This trend could grow in the coming years, as the ballpark arms race escalates and cities find out the park they just built won't cut it anymore.
The city didn't actually pay for the ballpark itself; Chicago businessman Horn Chen did that. But the city did donate the land, provide the infrastructure and spend $500,000 to build an access road for the park.
Five years later, it's a road to nowhere.
Price Cutter Park was originally built for the Ozark Mountain Ducks of the independent Texas-Louisiana League, which Chen owned at the time. The nearby city of Springfield had made at least three efforts to bring affiliated baseball to town in the decade before, but all of them failed.
The Ducks drew 154,752 fans in 41 home dates in 1999, the highest figure in the league. Attendance went past 200,000 in the second season, but fell every year after that. After 2003, the team moved to the Frontier League, but the new league couldn't solve the old problems and attendance dipped to 67,028.
McQuay attributes the problems to poor franchise management. "If you get somebody in here with the right marketing skills, you can still have great success," she said.
That's not the city's real problem, though. That lies a few miles away in Springfield, site of $30 million Hammons Field. Local hotelier John Q. Hammons built the stadium, which opened last spring, ostensibly for the Southwest Missouri State baseball team. "That's what we were told, but I didn't believe it from the beginning," McQuay said. Sure enough, less than a year after the ballpark opened came the announcement that a Texas League franchise would move in for 2005. Worse yet for Ozark, the team will be a Cardinals affiliate (in fact, St. Louis bought the franchise), generating even more local buzz.
Good Seats Available
The Frontier League saw the writing on the wall early and abandoned the market. The stories about independent teams competing with affiliated teams successfully are few and far between, particularly when the affiliated team is moving into a bigger, newer ballpark.
That won't deter McQuay, who has made being mayor of Ozark a full-time job, even though it's an unpaid position. She is retired and now spends time looking for any baseball team that needs a place to play. Interestingly, Southwest Missouri may have to play a few games at Price Cutter Park because of work going on at Hammons Field to improve it for the new pro team.
It's not as if the city of Ozark will go under if it doesn't find a tenant for the ballpark. But McQuay said she loves baseball and hates to see such a nice stadium go unused.
"I was on the city council when we built the stadium, and I bought the first four seats and had them ever since," she said. "Now it looks like we're sitting here with an open stadium."
In addition to possible Southwest Missouri games, McQuay continues to look for other college, high school and youth teams to play in Ozark. She recognizes the professional market has dried up for now.
And if nothing else, she takes solace in knowing that Ozark proved the Springfield market was a viable one for baseball.
"I don't think Springfield would have done what they did if we hadn't moved first," she said.
Unfortunately for Ozark, as so often happens in the wacky world of capitalism, the little guy with the big idea is often crushed by the big guy who copies it. In the meantime, if you're looking for a ballpark, you know who to call.
You can contact Will Lingo by sending e-mail to [email protected].