(Note: This commentary originally ran in The Detroit News on Oct. 25, 2006.)
In 1894, a California entrepreneur arrived in Detroit to establish a minor league baseball team. His name was George Arthur Vanderbeck, and the team he founded would soon be known as the Detroit Tigers.
Vanderbeck's team first played its games near the Detroit River where the Belle Isle Bridge is now located. In 1895, the land at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull avenues became available, and Vanderbeck decided to build a new ballpark on the site of the failed Western Market.
In 1896, Bennett Park opened its doors, and Vanderbeck established the grounds where his team would play its games for the next 104 years. The site went on to attract more than 120 million spectators, host nine World Series, three All-Star Games and become one of the most historically significant baseball venues in the world.
Past reveals park lessons
The storied history that transpired at the site was not Vanderbeck's direct intention. In truth, Vanderbeck was simply seeking to make a profit. He created his baseball team primarily in the pursuit of financial reward. If Vanderbeck's venture was successful, he would reap the benefit; if it was unsuccessful, he would bear the cost.
The city of Detroit and its current leadership could learn a valuable lesson from the history of the Detroit Tigers' founder.
For starters, Vanderbeck's investment didn't require tax credits or abatements, feasibility studies or a municipal "Planning Department" to make it successful. What Vanderbeck had at his disposal was a free enterprise system that allowed him to operate with no government interference.
Compared to so much of what passes today as economic development in Detroit, Vanderbeck risked his own capital to start his new business, and the government stayed out of his affairs. In his day, government was not in the development business. As a result, economic growth boomed and capital flowed into Detroit.
Investors scared away
Since the Detroit Tigers left Tiger Stadium seven years ago, the city of Detroit has treated the corner of Michigan and Trumbull like a political pawn played with an iron fist. Government control has scared away potential investors who showed interest in developing the site and, like Vanderbeck, in risking their own capital.
Today, anyone interested in Tiger Stadium has no choice but to negotiate with bureaucrats and a city government that cling to the belief that a centrally planned economy is the proper way to conduct business. Unfortunately, it never dawns on our city leaders to let the market decide the fate of a defunct, government-owned venue like Tiger Stadium.
Instead, employees in the city's Planning and Development Department were charged with determining what constitutes a "best use" for The Corner instead of simply selling the property to the highest bidder in an open, fair auction and allowing the winner to do with the property as he pleases.
Regrettably, the city has wasted the past seven years while feasibility studies have been conducted on what to do with the asset. Failing to be persuaded that Tiger Stadium holds value, city planners seem bent on tearing it down and promoting a government-sanctioned plan without having investors or developers in place.
Invite stadium bids
A market solution to this problem would be for Detroit to simply sell Tiger Stadium by issuing an invitation to bid. Bids are used by units of government primarily when it is easy to define the service or asset being contracted or sold outright, and the bids are almost always opened at a very public meeting.
Putting the ballpark and property up for bid would allow potential investors, not city government, to decide what the highest valued and best use of Tiger Stadium is.
One can only wonder how many George Arthur Vanderbecks the city has scared off over the years with its wrongheaded economic policies. It's time to end the attempt to centrally plan Detroit's economic landscape and to let entrepreneurs operate in a free market once again.
If Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick is looking for the right way to deal with Tiger Stadium, he should learn how it came into being in the first place.
Mr. Steven Thomas, owner of Detroit Athletic Co., a memorabilia store west of Tiger Stadium, is a freelance writer and an adjunct scholar with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Midland-based research and educational institute.