Durable Growth

Don’t be a vacuum cleaner guy

090823B001All Pro Freight Stadium - PatchI’m going to wax philosophical today. I’ve been writing this blog long enough to know that doing so isn’t going to change the world. And that’s okay. If I change the way just one person thinks about the land-use process, or about life, then I’ll have had a good day.

Many years ago, I was president and part-owner of a minor league baseball team. It was a great experience. Expensive, but a source of memories and stories that will make me smile forever. Those in the North Bay may remember the Sonoma County Crushers who played in Rohnert Park until 2002. My club was in the same league.

I rarely note my baseball experience in this blog because it has little pertinence to land use or to urbanism, but once in awhile I can find a way to connect some dots. Today is one of those times.

During the life of the ballclub, we had one particular fan. I’ve forgotten his name, so I’ll call him the Vacuum Cleaner Guy. If I recall correctly, he had at least some college, perhaps even a degree, but he’d never found an office situation where he could be successful. He’d tried a small business, but again failed. By the time I got to know him, he was earning a living as a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman.

But it wasn’t much of a living. And his ballpark spending reflected his life situation. He was always looking for free or discounted tickets. And he never patronized the ballpark concessions, always sneaking his dinner into the park.

We didn’t mind having the Vacuum Cleaner Guy in the ballpark. Every person in the stands adds to the ambiance of the experience, which brings fans back to more games. But Vacuum Cleaner Guy wasn’t a source of revenue.

This was a shame because revenue is often scarce in minor league baseball. An affiliated ballclub with good local government support can be financially stable. Perhaps no one gets rich, but the operation can be sustained from year-to-year.

But we weren’t in those categories. We were an independent ballclub so we paid the players ourselves instead of having a Major League club cover the payroll. (The photo above is of the ballfield of an independent ballclub in Ohio.) And the management team which preceded my time as president had burned a number of community bridges, so we weren’t getting any favors from City Hall or the Park and Recreation District.

We were discreet in talking about our uncertain finances. Even if it was occasionally true, to say publicly that we were unsure of meeting payroll the following week would have damaged the turnstile count and the clubhouse morale. But we often told the press that our ability to return for the following season would depend on selling more season tickets or securing more sponsorships. The fans understood the cues we were giving.

In particular, Vacuum Cleaner Guy took our situation to heart, often waylaying me during ballgames to impart his wisdom, most of which was in the form of spending money to make money. He was sure that rebuilding the ballpark restrooms would increase ticket revenue by more than the cost of the construction, that improving the beer selection would greatly increase sales, and that adding more vendors in the stands would increase concessions sales by more than the additional costs.

Of course, there were many reasons to discount his advice. To begin, his own career path didn’t provide any grounds to value his wisdom. For another, he didn’t have the capacity to spend any more money at the ballpark than he already did, so he was assuming behavior by the general public that wasn’t consistent with his own situation.

But the most important reason to set aside his suggestions was that he never made an effort to learn about the finances of minor league baseball. I wouldn’t have told him everything. It wouldn’t have been appropriate to share salary information or to provide updates on litigation risks elsewhere in the league, but there was much that could have helped inform his opinions. However, despite being generous with his suggestions, he never once asked about percentage of revenue that came from gate receipts, the structure of beer vendor arrangement, or the impact of workers’ comp insurance.

It’s awfully hard to value the opinion of someone who makes no attempt to understand the parameters of the problem.

(Coincidentally, a second illustration of the same point also comes from my baseball years. Another of the co-owners, and perhaps the best friend of my adult years, began a career in politics during that time. He soon reached a position of prominence in the state budget process. Citizens from across the state would seek time with him to lobby for funding priorities, often in the field of public education.

Whenever someone began a conversation about education funding, Ben would ask what percent of the current state budget was dedicated to education. If he received the right answer, which was close to fifty percent, he would take the conversation seriously and engage in an extended give-and-take over budget priorities.

But when he received the wrong answer, which he often did, with most folks putting the percentage far below fifty percent, he would judge that his time was being wasted by folks who hadn’t done their homework and would cut the conversation short.)

And this brings us back around to land use. In my role as a commenter on land-use practices, policies, and realities, I chat with many folks about North Bay land-use issues. I’m not surprised that many don’t understand the give-and-take of the process, or the underlying realities of zoning codes versus raising capital versus construction costs versus impact fees versus absorption rates.

But I’m very surprised when so many have no interest in learning about these topics. Instead, the attitude is frequently, “I don’t need to understand the process and the factors that affect it. I only need to say what land uses I want and expect them to appear.”

I’m not going to defend the way we do land use. Anyone who has read this blog over the past three years knows that I have many issues with how the system has evolved, from the implementation of CEQA to the calculation of impact fees to the risk aversion that is often driven by banking regulations.

But to complain about the results of the land use process and to advocate for other solutions without deeming the understanding of the process as worthy of one’s time is akin to letting go of a china tea cup in mid-air and then protesting bitterly about gravity when the cup shatters on the floor.

(By the way, I’m also not setting myself up as some fully-informed land-use savant. I’m constantly studying and learning, and hope never to cease.)

Unable to overcome the ill-will left behind by the earlier management team, we eventually shut down the baseball team. It was a sad day, but we were out of options. Even if he’d bother to educate himself, I don’t think Vacuum Cleaner Guy could have helped save the day. The hole we inherited was too deep.

But nobody is going to shut down North Bay land use. Instead, if it continues on the path it has followed for the past seven decades, it’ll just keep digging a deeper hole. If that future isn’t appealing, now is the time to become educated and to make a difference. No one should be a Vacuum Cleaner Guy.

Next time, I’ll tackle a question recently raised by a reader, “Is there such a thing as bad urbanism?” The question forced me to reassess some definitions I’ve been using.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated. Please comment below or email me. And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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