Taxpayer-funded suites also have been used, at no charge, by elected officials and a church pastor who took some people out to a ballgame to introduce them to Jesus.
Spring training ballpark-suite use studied
Many cities lacking policies for spring-training areas
by Sonu Munshi - Mar. 17, 2012 10:40 PM
Most Valley cities that own spring-training ballparks have access to suites, but few have policies for their use, which can lead to a lack of transparency.
City officials say the suites help serve as an economic-development tool, as they invite business owners to enjoy a ballgame, and support local non-profits and community groups by offering free access.
An Arizona Republic survey of suite use over the past two years shows the taxpayer-funded suites also have been used, at no charge, by elected officials and a church pastor who took some people out to a ballgame to introduce them to Jesus.
Some cities make money by renting the suites, but they also often sit empty.
Eight Valley cities -- Phoenix, Scottsdale, Mesa, Tempe, Glendale, Peoria, Surprise and Goodyear -- own ballparks. All but Phoenix and Scottsdale manage at least some of the suites. Only Glendale and Goodyear have a formal policy regarding the use of suites.
Government ethicists say even if cities use these suites for positive purposes, they must do so with full transparency.
"You have to have someone keeping tabs, otherwise the public may question exactly what they are being used for," said Robert Wechsler, the Connecticut-based director of research at City Ethics, a non-profit, nonpartisan group that provides advice on local government ethics.
Ballparks for business
Economic-development officials in Valley cities that control use of some spring-training suites used them between 6 and 18 percent of the time last season, based on The Republic's records request.
Peoria economic developers use a city suite at the Peoria Sports Complex during about 10 games each spring as the Seattle Mariners or San Diego Padres play. The suite makes for a "relaxed and neutral environment in which to meet and talk about projects," said Maria Laughner, who manages the city's business and real-estate development.
Scottsdale doesn't have control of suites at Scottsdale Stadium, but the city's economic developer, Bob Tunis, knows the benefits from a previous job.
He described box or suite seating as being in the top-5 tools that a city could use to attract businesses.
Ethics experts say that's a legitimate use, but transparency on who gets in the suite is critical.
"If the use is genuinely for economic development, and city leaders don't make it self-serving, I don't see a problem with it," said Craig Holman, a lobbyist on governmental ethics for Public Citizen, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group.
However, Glendale was the only city to document its economic-development use by listing the names of the guests. Officials in other cities said they don't track the information, instead typically listing only "economic development" in the records.
That concerns Judy Nadler, a senior fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in California.
Nadler, a former mayor in Santa Clara, said things can get tricky because municipalities compete for business or don't want some private companies to know with whom they are in talks. But she said municipal leaders owe it to the public to keep details on who uses a suite and for what purpose.
"The question arises why one person was invited and not another, because by picking and choosing, it is now considered a perk," Nadler said.
Among those receiving the benefit of taxpayer-funded suites in many cities are non-profit groups, from charities to churches.
Glendale donated its suite at Camelback Ranch Glendale in Phoenix to Families Forward, which runs group homes and shelters for children. Raegan Knight, human-resources manager for the non-profit, said it's nice to be able to take the kids to a ballgame.
"They would not get such a chance otherwise," she said.
Glendale also frequently donates the suite to churches, which, a city spokeswoman said, use them for the same purpose as other non-profits -- to take members to a ballgame who may not be able to go otherwise, to raise funds and to honor volunteers. Last spring, church groups occupied the Glendale suite about half the time they were in use.
Pastor Jeff Fillis of Turning Leaf Community Church, which twice got access, said he has been grateful for the free tickets to and for a suite at the city-owned Jobing.com Arena.
Fillis said they take people who they feel "could use some encouragement in their life or maybe would not have been able to go to an event like that because of cost."
No other city notes donating suites to churches, although Tempe makes donating its suite at Tempe Diablo Stadium to non-profits a priority.
"They contribute to the well-being of our community," said Travis Dray, deputy director for community services in Tempe.
Most cities also use the suites for employee and volunteer recognition. For example, Goodyear waived the suite-rental fee to host its Planning Commission members, who volunteer many hours on behalf of the city, spokeswoman Paula Ilardo said.
Some cities generate direct revenue from the suites.
Goodyear, like the other cities, uses its suites at Goodyear Ballpark for non-profits and economic development, but its policy emphasizes that the city's main aim is to generate revenue from renting its four suites. They rented their suites nearly 30 percent of the time last season, bringing in $17,280.
Mesa has three suites at Hohokam Stadium and earned $35,685 in rentals last year.
Glendale and Tempe, which have one suite each under city control, don't try to rent them, instead supporting non-profits and relationship building with businesses.
Surprise, which has four suites at Surprise Stadium, said rentals are a tough sale to the general public, with few dates sold over the past 10 years. Mark Coronado, Surprise's community- and recreation-services director, said the suites are more often combined with lucrative sponsorship deals.
Peoria ballpark manager Chris Easom said fancy suites can be a draw for spring training, as they are in the major leagues. Peoria began to rent the more austere suites at its aging ballpark two years ago. The city earned $2,250 last season.
Easom said it's often hard to promote sales because of uncertainty over which dates might be in use for other city purposes. But there is a market.
In Florida's Grapefruit League, a spokeswoman at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, said the Miami Marlins and the St. Louis Cardinals control its six suites and make about $200,000 each season.
The city-controlled suites at times just sit empty.
In Tempe, the suite was empty six times last season; nine times in Glendale and at least 11 times in Peoria.
Mesa, home of the popular Chicago Cubs, had three game days where its three suites were dark, according to city records.
Surprise had 23 vacancies among its four suites last season. Goodyear had 72 vacancies among its four suites in 2011.
Access to the city suites is tracked but often not in detail, so who ends up being invited or using a suite for free at a ballgame can remain unknown.
Glendale only keeps its suite records for one year, although the city does provide detail for each city staffer or elected official who reserves the suite, including a list of their guests. City policy allows the City Council to use the suites if it is a city purpose.
Vice Mayor Steve Frate and his wife took advantage of that in 2011 when he invited a representative from Mothers Against Drunk Driving and her family to a game. Frate said he was contacted by the non-profit about getting a city proclamation so he invited them to a ballgame in the suite to discuss it.
Frate also invited two Thunderbird School of Global Management students from China, who had never seen a baseball game, he said.
In Mesa, records show only the name of the person in the department who was the point of contact for the reservation. That included six bookings from the Mayor's Office last season.
"We are the home of the Cubs and we use that to our maximum benefit," Mayor Scott Smith said.
He said he uses the suite to build business relationships, and he's lucky to watch any of the ballgame. "I'm mostly shaking hands and talking to people," Smith said.