According to most everyone who has studied the issue, the effect of sports stadiums on a local economy is insignificant, at best. At the same time, almost everyone involved in the Ballpark at Harbor Yard’s 20-year run in Bridgeport says it was an exception to the rule.

“The team really did take the town and the region by storm,” said Mickey Herbert, one of the team’s founding owners. “It was enormously exciting and great fun.”

On Thursday, the city officially announced plans to turn the ballpark into a “boutique amphitheater” for several dozen concerts a year, as well as graduations, events and local shows. The new venue, should it be approved by the City Council, would begin operation in 2019 and mark the end of a two-decade run for the Atlantic League’s Bridgeport Bluefish.

The team initially generated an excitement around the city’s rebirth it was unable to maintain over the long term, even as long-germinating developments like Steel Point, just across the water, come to fruition.

“People are very disappointed they’re going to lose the Bluefish,” said Herbert, now president of the Bridgeport Regional Business Council. “That doesn’t necessarily translate to them coming out to the stadium in droves.”

Studies show

Across numerous studies in recent decades, researchers have agreed sports stadiums are a poor investment for a local economy, especially high-profile major league facilities that cost hundreds of millions of dollars. The outcomes associated with lower-level teams like the Bluefish are not as clear, though any gains are thought to be small, at best.

One 2011 study published in the Journal of Sports Economics found modest gains in per-capita income where stadiums were home to teams with major league affiliations, but no significant gains from independent teams, like the Bluefish.

Another study, presented in 2015 at a conference at Quinnipiac University, examined per-capita income in 112 municipalities with stadiums and found that “minor league baseball stadiums will likely not result in a significant positive economic impact in the local town or city where it is built.”

Stadium jobs tend to be low-paying and seasonal, while patrons’ entertainment dollars spent are as likely to be used at a different outlet in the absence of a stadium, meaning there is often no extra money being spent.

According to census data, Bridgeport’s median income in 2015 was $41,801, with that number growing at a slower rate than other Connecticut cities that did not have a stadium.

Bridgeport is hardly the only city in Connecticut to lose a baseball team in recent years. The New Haven Ravens played at Yale Field from 1994 to 2003, with a Major League Baseball affiliation. New Britain’s longtime minor league team moved last year to Hartford to become the Yard Goats, replaced by an Atlantic League franchise. Going back further, Waterbury had a minor league team from 1966 to 1986.

The conversion of Harbor Yard’s ballfield to an amphitheater would likely close off the possibility of professional baseball in the city for years to come, Herbert said.

“That possibility would be remote at best,” he said.

Bridgeport then

The Ballpark at Harbor Yard was built on the site of the former Jenkins Bros. Valve factory, a brownfield that stood empty for more than a decade. It was just one of a series of abandoned industrial sites that defined the city to outsiders.

Mayor Joe Ganim, then as now the top elected official in the state’s largest city, recalled the scene at Thursday’s amphitheater announcement.

“Twenty years ago, I was here and we were looking at a city that was physically and spiritually rebuilding itself and pulling itself together,” he told a crowd at McLevy Green. “We were looking for something to use as our rallying point, and we were lucky enough to have the wherewithal to tear down some dilapidated factories, relocate some public housing and bring in the Bluefish.”

Ganim said the team was key to kickstarting the city’s resurgence.

“We opened up what was the most exciting thing Bridgeport had seen in decades,” he said. “It fulfilled its commitment to bring family entertainment and to cross boundaries between urban and suburban and bring people into downtown Bridgeport.”

Bringing in suburbanites was key, as was marketing the city as safe.

Appealing to millennials

Bridgeport’s downtown when Harbor Yard opened was mostly empty, marked by abandoned office buildings and street-level vacancies. Today, many of those buildings have been converted to apartments, and the downtown constituency is larger than it has been in years. Restaurants and stores have filled many vacant spaces, though they’re often short-lived.

“The city today, I think, is more poised for positive economic development events,” Herbert said, citing Steel Point, the conversion of a former factory complex into the Cherry Street Lofts, and plans for a beer hall and comedy club to open downtown. “There are a bunch of exciting things happening around the city that are really pretty promising.”

It’s impossible to say whether current developments would have moved ahead without the presence of the Bluefish, but Herbert said the team changed the city’s perception to outsiders, adding that he knew of no public safety incidents at the stadium over the years.

“I think the ballpark was a piece of a puzzle, maybe the first piece of the puzzle.”; 203-842-2546