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And it's getting very hard to stay
And we're moving on to Allentown

(Apologies to Mr. Joel.)

The Orioles' Triple-A affiliate, the Ottawa Lynx, could move to Allentown, Pennsylvania, in 2008, according to an article in today's Morning Call (Allentown's local newspaper):

Allentown's minor league baseball stadium — all but certain to be approved today by the state Senate — would be home to a Class AAA team, one step below the major leagues.

Legislative sources have identified the team as the Ottawa Lynx, an affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles. If all goes as planned, the team will start playing in an east Allentown stadium in 2008.

Nearer my AAA team to me

If the deal for a new stadium and the Lynx sale go through as reported, what would it mean for Oriole fans? Because Allentown is much closer to Baltimore than Ottawa is, fans would actually be able to see the Triple-A squad's home games without taking a plane. The highway distance from Baltimore to Allentown is about 150 miles, or a 2½- to 3-hour drive. In contrast, driving from Baltimore to Ottawa eats up about 500 miles—an eleven-hour act of masochism.

Because of Allentown's relative proximity, it would not be impractical for a Baltimore-area baseball fan to take an afternoon off, drive up to Allentown, eat dinner, take in an evening game, stay overnight in a motel and return home the next morning. One could even bypass the motel and head straight home after the game, although that might require the assist of ingested stimulants.

For air travel, Lehigh Valley International Airport is nearby, although currently it does not have regular flights that connect directly with BWI—Washington's Dulles International is as close as it gets—so flying to Allentown from Baltimore would take about as long as driving there.

(I wasn't able to find a bus or rail connection from Baltimore to the Allentown area.)

We're waiting here in Allentown

Other than geography, one of the reasons the Lynx's owner wants to move or sell his team is that attendance has been unsustainably low in Ottawa—the worst in the International League, in fact. Would Allentown support a baseball team better than Ottawa has? That remains to be seen, but the potential is there. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population of Allentown has remained stable at around 105,000 for the past 50 years. The combined population of surrounding Lehigh County and adjacent Northampton County is about 600,000, and the Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton metropolitan statistical area (which adds Warren Co., NJ, and Carbon Co., PA) contains about 750,000 people. Ottawa, by contrast, is home to some 770,000 residents, and more than 1.1 million reside in its census metropolitan area, but apparently just 2,000 of them are interested in attending the Lynx's baseball games on an average day.

There are no minor-league teams currently playing in Lehigh Valley. The closest towns with MLB affiliates are Reading, Trenton, and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Philadelphia and its Phillies are also nearby. The most recent professional team to play in Allentown, the Ambassadors of the independent Northeast League, had a decent seven-year run beginning in 1997, but seasonal attendance faded from a high of 122,000 in 1998 to just 40,000 in 2003. After failing to win funding for a new stadium to replace aging Bicentennial Park, the Ambassadors declared bankruptcy before the 2004 season, then were reincarnated as the Aces and ended up playing the entire 2004 season on the road. The Northeast League dissolved after that, with a few teams (but not the Aces) surviving to form part of the new Can-Am League. This year, Bicentennial Park is hosting games consisting mostly of local amateur players.

The Ambassadors' attendance dropoff might be a bad omen. It suggests that locals initially flocked to the ballpark for the novelty of it, but quickly tired of the game and turned to other diversions. On the other hand, the quality of play in the indy leagues is a few notches down from Triple-A, and the quirky, cramped, 30-year-old Bicentennial Park has had its share of detractors.

Other considerations:

  • With a Triple-A affiliate in Allentown, the Orioles would save a few thousand dollars on employee travel each year. That's a drop in the bucket for a team whose annual revenues are approximately $150 million (Forbes magazine's most recent estimate), but every bit helps.
  • The team's minor-league director might be inclined to take more scouting trips to the Triple-A affiliate if it is in Allentown. This could give him a better read on the progress of those players.
  • Perhaps the proximity of Allentown could result in more prospects advancing all the way up to Triple-A, instead of being called up to the majors directly from Single-A or Double-A.
  • Moving the Triple-A affiliate to the U.S. would mean no more problems with minor-league players crossing the border to work in Canada. For example, Eric DuBose should have started this year at Triple-A, but because of potential legal difficulties stemming from his drunk-driving incident in March, he was sent to Double-A Bowie, where he remains today.
  • The spring weather is noticeably milder in Allentown than it is in Ottawa, so players would no longer freeze their, um, bats off early in the season.
  • Nearly 25 percent of Allentown's population designated itself as Hispanic or Latino in origin in 2000, so perhaps Latin-American players would develop a connection with the local community there.

In all, this looks like a positive development for Baltimore (not to mention Allentown), as well as another strike against baseball in Canada.

A bird's-eye view of Lehigh Valley

Allentown is situated in Lehigh Valley near the New Jersey border. The valley has been a manufacturing center for over a century. A variety of products have been produced there, including textiles, chemicals, trucks, and food, but the region is most famous for its iron and steel output, which today are more a memory than a reality. Allentown is a neighbor of the not-so-little town of Bethlehem (pop. 72,000), the longtime corporate home of now-defunct Bethlehem Steel. (In its heyday, Bethlehem Steel churned out tons of material for America's buildings, bridges, vehicles, and warships. It operated a large plant at Sparrows Point in Baltimore before selling it a couple of years ago as part of its bankruptcy filing. The company had already shut down its plant in Bethlehem in 1995.) A few miles east down the Lehigh River is Easton (pop. 26,000), another industrial town and home of the Crayola factory.

But in recent years, as many of the area's industrial products have been overtaken by cheaper imports, the commercial focus has moved away from manufacturing and toward a more service-oriented economy. Lately, the region has attempted to build a reputation as a tourist, shopping, and entertainment destination. The service sector is still at an early stage of development—in addition to an outlet mall and several historical sites, the area hosts a symphony orchestra, a few other arts organizations, and many small museums—but the best may be yet to come. Construction recently began on a Smithsonian-affiliated National Museum of Industrial History in Bethlehem. The museum is part of a larger plan to convert Bethlehem's abandoned industrial complexes into a hub of entertainment, retail, and restaurants, not unlike the redevelopment of the Inner Harbor in Baltimore. Bethlehem is also hoping to obtain state permits to operate slot machines, although those may be a few years away. Other leisure attractions in the area are white-water rafting, mountain hiking, fishing, hunting, and skiing.

Lehigh Valley is also home to several post-secondary institutions, including Lehigh University (alma mater of Dave Ritterpusch, the Orioles' director of baseball information systems) and Moravian College in Bethlehem; Muhlenberg College in Allentown; and Lafayette College in Easton. (The latter three are small, private schools with religious affiliations.) Penn State Lehigh Valley, a modest branch of under 1,000 students, is in Fogelsville, on the outskirts of Allentown.

The transformation of Allentown and environs is far from complete, though it holds promise. Industrial production continues to recede from its once-preeminent position in the local economy, but the region's manufacturing heritage remains a source of pride as other income streams take its place. In a few years, major commercial developments such as the new baseball stadium in east Allentown and the industrial history museum in Bethlehem could make the area a vibrant, desirable place not only to visit but also to work and live. The decaying, moribund Allentown of Billy Joel's 1982 song is being pushed back into the past, and perhaps a decade from now it will be unrecognizable.

Comments (5)

Richard Cuff:

Greetings from Allentown! You captured the situation here pretty well. One thing that props up the Lehigh Valley economy is its proximity to NYC and NJ. People are moving here from the NYC region due to our lower cost of living. Finley is very well regarded for his minor league operations. I work in Reading and attend occasional R-Phils games. Hopefully he'll run as good an operation here.



Thanks for adding that information about Joseph Finley (one of the potential buyers of the Lynx; Craig Stein is the other). I should have mentioned something about him but didn't get to it. The press reports on him generally concur with your opinion. He seems to have a good marketing sense, having had success as owner of teams in both Lakewood and Trenton.

In my research for this article, I saw a few parallels between Lehigh Valley and Baltimore in the ways they are trying to bounce back from industrial decline. Lehigh's redevelopment took longer to get going than Baltimore's, but it appears to be headed in the right direction.

Baltimore's economic recovery is far from completion and has not been hiccup-free by any means, but it is generally considered one of the most successful city makeovers of the past century. The most obvious change is Harborplace, a set of shops and restaurants along the waterfront that opened in 1980. With the aid of an aquarium and several museums, the Inner Harbor has become a major tourist attraction. The city has also grown its downtown financial and health care sector over the years. Manufacturing is still a significant part of the economy, but not to the extent that it used to be.

I like the way that both locales are retaining parts of their industrial past in their new projects. For example, Baltimore converted an old power plant building on the harborfront into a retail/restaurant complex, and of course Camden Yards was built next to the B&O Railroad warehouse, which was turned into offices. In similar fashion, Bethlehem is renovating and reusing old steel factory buildings for its planned megaplex. Transition is less traumatic for a community when connections to the past are not broken altogether.

I can understand Lehigh Valley appealing to people who work in NJ. I once met someone who commuted from home in eastern PA to an office in central Jersey. (But I have trouble believing that people would live in PA and commute daily to NYC -- that trip has to be too long and tiring to do more than once or twice a week.) In much the same way, Baltimore developers and housing agents have been hawking their city to those who work in Washington, D.C., as an inexpensive alternative to the pricey D.C. area.

Luring workers from other cities to live in your city is a smart survival strategy for a city whose economy is in transition, but in the long run it's not workable. So-called bedroom communities have trouble generating enough tax revenue to adequately fund infrastructure needs such as schools and police departments. This is because residents use more of those government services per tax dollar generated than businesses do. Thus it's best to have tax revenue coming from a mix of local residents and businesses.

Looking at Allentown's census data, I was surprised by how inexpensive it was to live there (median house values were about $77k in 2000). Has the area been affected by the housing boom (or bubble) that's been sweeping the country?


The answer to the question in my previous comment is in an article in the July 31 Morning Call:

For the first six months of the year, the average price of an existing home in the Lehigh Valley was $197,000, up 14 percent compared with the first six months of 2004, according to statistics from the Lehigh Valley Association of Realtors. That follows increases of 10 percent in 2004 and 15 percent in 2003. Economists consider a 5 percent annual increase to be normal home appreciation....

The market for newly built homes is just as hot as for existing homes. The average price of a four-bedroom, newly constructed home in the Lehigh Valley was $374,000 last month, up about $100,000, or 36 percent, from two years ago.

Obviously, those numbers are evidence that housing in the Lehigh Valley region is indeed thriving.

And many of those buyers are from New Jersey and New York:

[Local real estate agent Stan] Kaplan says many people in central New Jersey, Manhattan and Long Island consider the Lehigh Valley ''the Wal-Mart of real estate.''

Despite the stiff increases, home prices in the Lehigh Valley remain comparatively low. For the month of June, the average price of an existing home was $221,000 here, $268,000 nationally and $286,000 in the Northeast. For the first quarter of the year, the average price was $346,200 in New Jersey.

I can understand why people would sell their homes in Jersey and move to eastern PA, but I still have trouble imagining Allentown as an exurb of NYC, which is at least two hours away by car. Do those people commute to work in private planes or something?

According to people in the real estate industry, the area's housing market is not a bubble that will burst anytime soon.

Experts say they don't expect local home values to drop suddenly. That's partly because there are not many people who are buying homes here for investment purposes and then quickly selling them for a profit.

''It's not like a stock they call their broker and dump. They live in it,'' Kaplan, the real estate agent, said.

Credit Jeanne Bonner of The Morning Call for a well-researched article.

Mike - OTTAWA:

Just to clarrify, you were a 'little-bit" off on the population of Ottawa, Ontario. That is if you define 'little-bit' as 1 million. The population of Canada's capital is 1.2 million.

Its a great city, with an NHL team, and a CFL team as well, but unforuntely my fellow Ottawans have not supported minor league baseball in many years.

Back in the mid 90's the team was routinely selling out and drew an IL record of just under 700,000 to the ball park that year. Sadly, much like the Jays and our dearly departed Expos baseball is dying a slow death in this country. Ottawa is the last triple-A club and Vancouver is theonly other minor league team now playing the the single-a ranks. Gone over the past decade are minor league teams in Calgary, Edmonton, London, Weland, St. Catherin, Lethbridge and Medicine Hat.

Long live the LYNX! PLEASE!


Egads! I can't believe I was off the mark by that much. But indeed I was: according to the most recent census (2001), the population of the city of Ottawa proper was about 774,000, and the Ottawa-Hull census metropolitan area (CMA) included 1.1 million residents. Not only that, but both the city and its surroundings continue to grow. Thanks for pointing out my error; I am going to correct the article for the record, even though this article is somewhat old.

Why was I so far off with Ottawa's population figure? I think it happened because I used an outdated reference (though it could have been just five years old) that reported the population of what is now known as the old City of Ottawa, before the capital's city limits were expanded in 2001 to include several of its suburbs. In fact, the population of the old City of Ottawa was and probably still is around 300,000 people. But I should have reported the population of the entire metro area anyway, as that would have given a better picture of Ottawa's potential audience for baseball.

Speaking of which, I think it's a pity how Ottawa's support for the Lynx has eroded the past few years. I don't think it's entirely the fault of the people of Ottawa; I think there was a ripple effect from what happened with the Expos, and the sad state of the Orioles' upper-level farm talent didn't help either. I don't expect that Canada will continue to lose interest in baseball at such a rate, but perhaps it may never return to the levels of appreciation it showed in the '80s and early '90s.

I think it is incumbent on MLB to do what it can to sustain interest in baseball in Canada. Otherwise, where will the next Erik Bedard or Adam Loewen or Jason Bay come from? Maybe there won't be a team in Yellowknife, but the lower provinces should have a few more pro teams to keep the game alive. Given the coldness of the Aprils up north, perhaps adding a couple of short-season minor league teams (which play from June to August) would be a good idea. Ultimately, the market will decide, of course. I think eventually some entrepreneur will see an opportunity up there.

At least the nouveau riche Blue Jays are looking good these days -- better than the Orioles, anyway. And the Ottawa Senators are the class of the NHL right now. Most goals scored, least goals allowed, best record in the league: it doesn't get any better than that.


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