By Donald C. Fry

These days if you ask local leaders in business, tourism and the sports industry to gauge the impact of Oriole Park at Camden Yards on Baltimore, answering the question is a proverbial “no-brainer.”

The trailblazing ballpark, which cost the state $205 million to build two decades ago, “is one of the great values among stadiums,” says Marty Conway, vice president of sports marketing at IMRE, the Sparks-based marketing and public relations firm.

Conway, who lived through the ballpark’s planning and construction as the Orioles vice president of marketing and communication in the late 1980s and early 1990s, moderated a panel discussion I participated in this past Wednesday as part of the Orioles’ season-long commemoration of the 20th anniversary of stadium’s opening in 1992.

My own take on Oriole Park at Camden Yards? It’s one of the two defining projects during the last 50 years that shaped Baltimore’s economic competitiveness, its brand as a destination, and its quality of life – the other being the development of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

There is no question that, without that ballpark, downtown Baltimore would not be what it is today.

The beneficial impact of Oriole Park goes significantly beyond the data, which is itself compelling. It generates more than $166 million in annual gross state product, supports 2,452 jobs in Maryland, and generates approximately $18 million in annual state and local tax revenue, according to a Towson University report on the stadium’s economic impact in 2006.

Aside from the data, “it’s important to really understand the public benefits that have accrued” from the ballpark’s existence, said Ron Kreitner, executive director of Baltimore’s WestSide Renaissance, Inc. and a panelist at Wednesday’s event.

The ballpark drives an “entertainment synergy” that attracts throngs to Baltimore’s downtown and west side, he noted.

“It has taken some a while to understand the tremendous benefits and to accept them,” said Kreitner, who also noted that, among other impacts, almost $2 billion in private investment has occurred on Baltimore’s west side north of the ballpark.

Oriole Park anchors a collection of unique and widely-recognized assets around Baltimore’s waterfront that includes sports and meeting facilities, exceptional attractions, centers for business, and entertainment and recreational venues for residents and visitors. “No other place on the east coast has such a downtown string of pearls,” said Tom Noonan, president & CEO of Visit Baltimore.

The ballpark and the games there, the nearby waterfront and its attractions serve as a catalyst for what amounts to a downtown street festival 81 times a year.

Oriole Park at Camden Yards personifies Baltimore’s brand, panelists at last Wednesday’s event agreed. “In the sports world it’s synonymous with who we are,” said Terry Hasseltine, director of the Maryland Office of Sports Marketing. It creates an “easy platform” for promoting Baltimore and Maryland as a venue for sports events.

“They all want to come here,” says Hasseltine.

That includes fans of other teams who play the Orioles. Downtown hotels enjoy an average 80 percent occupancy rate, on baseball game nights, which is substantially higher than occupancy rates on non-game nights, said Visit Baltimore’s Noonan. Ironically, those out of town fans also make up a large percentage of the tours that are conducted of the iconic Camden Yards facility.

Downtown restaurants report significantly increased business on game nights.

“This is a special place, not just in Baltimore, but in baseball,” said Doug Duennes, the Orioles’ executive vice president of business operations for the past year and whose 30-year career in baseball has included management positions with three other major-league teams.

“There is really none like it,” said Duennes. “I’m amazed at what a great experience it is coming to a baseball game here in Baltimore.”

The beauty of Oriole Park’s design and location is that “it really does celebrate the city,” said Kreitner.

The Orioles and the Inner Harbor both rank among the top five answers in surveys asking out-of-towners what they associate with Baltimore, said Noonan.

While the value of the ballpark’s downtown location seems obvious today, it wasn’t obvious in the 1980s, when business and government leaders were struggling with where to build a new ballpark that most agreed was needed to cement the continuing presence of major-league baseball in Baltimore.

The years leading up to Oriole Park’s construction were punctuated by vigorous public debate over where to locate a new stadium. In an era when most new stadiums were being built in suburban locations, various locations in Baltimore’s suburbs were also considered.

“Nowhere in America was anybody talking about building a stadium in a downtown area,” said Kreitner who, served on the staff of William Donald Schaefer when he was Baltimore’s mayor and subsequently when he became Maryland’s governor in 1987.

Schaefer’s commitment to a downtown location and to an innovative design for the stadium was the driving force in the development of Oriole Park at Camden Yards. “We’ve got to do something here to make this very special,” Kreitner recalls Schaefer’s mantra at the time.

So special was the ballpark and its retro design, with the massive former B&O warehouse as a backdrop, that it has served as a prototype for many of the 20 baseball stadiums built during the last two decades.

The state financed Oriole Park’s construction through dedicated lottery sales, which since 1988, have generated more than $500 million in stadium funding, said Maryland State Lottery Director Stephen Martino.

Business leaders, through the Greater Baltimore Committee, stepped up in support of the planned new ballpark by playing a key role in efforts to win legislative approval for the stadium project in 1987.

The GBC broke stalled lease negotiations between the Orioles and the Maryland Stadium Authority by arranging a guarantee to back the sales of season tickets for the next 10 years. This broke the impasse and led to agreement on a long-term Orioles lease and to the ballpark’s construction.

There are important points to be gleaned from the story of Oriole Park at Camden Yards and Baltimore’s downtown redevelopment.

It reminds us that, in addition to government-driven fiscal policies, the right buildings and capital projects can absolutely be significant economic engines. There are other examples, but Baltimore’s Camden Yards facilities make a particularly compelling case for the value of visionary capital projects.

Such projects are expensive. They require strong vision, leadership and the right people making pivotal decisions at key moments of opportunity. For Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the driving vision and leadership largely emanated from an exceptional leader – Schaefer, working with forward-looking business leaders.

That was then. Today, we live in an era of fiscal distress, when government and many of its constituents tend to eschew capital spending in order to channel fiscal resources into mounting operational challenges.

But the lesson of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, preceded by the development of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, is that the value of the right capital projects to significantly impact economic competitiveness and quality of life shouldn’t be dismissed – even today.

And, just as it did 20 years ago, it remains incumbent on the business community to play a key role in shaping the vision for the projects that will enhance our future.

Donald C. Fry is President and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a regular contributor to Center Maryland.

Recent Center Maryland columns by Donald C. Fry:

Employers: workplace skills gap driven by need for IT talent

Businesses must cultivate Baltimore’s youthful talent

State task force: Manufacturing is making a comeback

Health care reform: Maryland insurers, Medicaid ahead of the readiness curve

Maryland dabbles, but mostly shirks infrastructure funding solution

1812 Bicentennial: Baltimore’s chance to shine … again

Maryland needs a Top Ten list of regulatory barriers

In DC and Annapolis, lawmakers still sidestepping transportation funding