IronPigs stadium renovations could be paid for with an amusement tax on tickets

Allentown and Lehigh County would be missing a big opportunity to do something for their residents and taxpayers if they just hand over millions of dollars to the IronPigs for stadium renovations.

The team desperately needs the money, to upgrade the stadium to meet onerous new standards set by Major League Baseball.

That gives City Council and county commissioners the leverage to seek something in return — the ability to charge an amusement tax on tickets.

That’s common for sales of tickets to sporting and entertainment venues. Philadelphia, for example, levies a 5% amusement tax on Phillies tickets. Easton levies an admissions tax on tickets to the State Theatre and Crayola Factory. South Whitehall taxes tickets to Dorney Park & Wildwater Kingdom.

But it’s not legal to levy an amusement tax on IronPigs tickets.

The lack of a tax has prevented the city and county from maximizing the value the IronPigs bring to the community.

The money raised could be spent on a multitude of needs, ranging from road and sewer system repairs to increasing mental health services to expanding law enforcement. And to reimburse for the stadium funding.

When Coca-Cola Park was being built and the franchise was preparing to debut in 2008, then-Mayor Ed Pawlowski wanted the city to have the option to levy an amusement tax. He was shut down.

State Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton, told The Morning Call in 2008 that team owners would agree to a stadium lease only if state lawmakers agreed there would be no ticket tax.

So legislators passed a law that prohibited the city from collecting a tax on tickets at the stadium.

Why? What’s the harm?

The IronPigs wouldn’t lose money. All the team would have to do is collect the tax and pass it on to the city and county, which could split it.

Spare me the argument about how an amusement tax would deter fans from attending.

Anyone who can afford to go to a ballgame and pay for parking, food and beer can handle a 50-cent or buck-a-ticket tax, too.

As Allentown City Council and the Lehigh County Commissioners mull whether to provide stadium renovation funding, they should consider this.

FILE - The IronPigs play the Rochester Red Wings at Coca-Cola Park in Allentown on July 6, 2022.

The IronPigs are in a difficult position, through no fault of their own.

Filthy-rich Major League Baseball handed minor league franchises an unfunded mandate to renovate their stadiums at the worst possible time. The minor leagues didn’t play in 2020 and played a shortened season in 2021, with smaller crowds, because of the pandemic.

Teams still aren’t back on their feet after losing that revenue. Now they must spend millions to upgrade stadiums in ways that will benefit ballplayers but do little, if anything, to increase gate receipts or improve the game experience for fans.

MLB is bullying minor league franchises, which the league could not exist without. It is threatening to pull their licenses to be affiliated with big league teams if they don’t meet the new standards.

Requirements for Coca-Cola Park include a third entrance (already completed), larger clubhouses, coaches’ offices, training rooms, weight rooms, kitchen and storage areas for both teams and a female locker room.

Those upgrades originally were estimated to cost $6 million. Inflation has increased the cost to about $10 million.

MLB is not giving teams much time to complete the upgrades, either. The due date is April. The league failed to consider that stadium renovations couldn’t be done during the season, which ended just recently.

And the worst part? MLB isn’t contributing a cent.

The league, and big league teams, should be helping their minor league partners with the cost.

The IronPigs are an asset for the Phillies. Having the Triple-A affiliate a few hours away makes it easy to call up players on short notice. It also is convenient for evaluating players.

The IronPigs are an asset for Allentown and the greater Lehigh Valley, too. The team deserves to be treated like an asset and be invested in when necessary. And this is one of those times.

Allentown didn’t contribute money toward construction of Coca-Cola Park, which cost $54 million. It must help the IronPigs now.

The team generates income for Allentown through wage and business taxes. It patronizes local businesses, such as with visiting teams staying at the Americus Hotel. It gives back to the community through charities.

The stadium also generates about $4 million a year for the city because part of the stadium property qualifies for a casino host fee, despite no casino ever being built. The county gets revenue, too.

The state has pitched in $2 million toward the stadium renovations. Northampton County has pitched in $200,000, from federal pandemic relief funds and the county’s tax on hotel rooms.

Allentown is the IronPigs’ hometown. It would look foolish if it refused to contribute when everyone around it has.

FILE - Phillies star Bryce Harper played for the IronPigs at Coca-Cola park in August 2022 during a rehab stint.

IronPigs co-owner Joe Finley made a sincere and reasonable request for $1.5 million to Allentown City Council’s Budget and Finance Commitee on Oct. 4.

Finley noted that when the stadium was built, Allentown was not asked to contribute funding. He said the team recognized the reality of the city’s financial situation. But the team has no choice but to seek the city’s help now, he said.

“We’re in a difficult position, so I’m in here tonight, hat in hand,” Finley told the committee.

He said the threat of the city losing the franchise “is real.” He explained how the New York Yankees moved their Double-A team out of Trenton, New Jersey, because it wanted a better facility.

“We don’t want to have the Lehigh Valley IronPigs go through that same process and lose baseball here and have a $54 million ballpark sitting there empty,” Finley said.

Allentown City Council has been divided as it considers whether to approve the $1.5 million , which would come from the city’s allotment of federal pandemic relief money.

Some council members believe that money would be better spent on other needs such as updating Allentown’s aging infrastructure. Council could vote on the funding Oct. 19.

There is broad support from the Lehigh County commissioners to contribute some of the county’s federal pandemic relief funds. In late September, a committee recommended the county provide $2.3 million and set aside another $700,000 to contribute if costs rise further.

Commissioners could take a final vote on the funding Wednesday.

The stakes are higher for the county. It owns and built Coca-Cola Park. Construction was paid for with state grants; a county bond issue that is being repaid with stadium rent from the team; and hotel taxes, which were increased by a half-percent to pay for the stadium.

The county would be in a financial hole if the team were to leave.

In exchange for the assistance it needs and deserves, the IronPigs’ ownership should drop their resistance to an amusement tax on tickets. I sought feedback from the team but did not hear back from General Manager Kurt Landes.

Team owners and officials from Allentown and Lehigh County should work together to lobby state lawmakers to remove the shortsighted law blocking a tax.

The legislative session is just about over, with our overpaid lawmakers having only about a week of session days scheduled for the rest of the year.

Yet the Legislature seems to be on the fast track to ram through a law to sell the former Allentown State Hospital site to City Center Investment Corp. There’s no reason it can’t do the same with a bill to help the city and county as they help the IronPigs get their stadium improvements done.

Morning Call columnist Paul Muschick can be reached at 610-820-6582 or paul.muschick@mcall.com

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