By Jose Leyva
It was the best season for the Yankees in years. The Bronx Bombers won their 27th World Series in November. Derek Jeter broke the Yankees’ all time record for career hits. Tens of thousands of fans clambered into the new stadium for eight extra games this season.
The merchants selling Yankee souvenirs around the stadium expected record sales. But instead, it was the worst season in a decade for the local business owners. Bronx Bomber merchandise has piled up unsold on their shelves and profits dropped by an estimated 20 or 30 percent.
“Something wrong was happening,” said Ali Ahmed, owner of Sand A. Sports store near the stadium. Ahmed sat at the cash register in front of a full inventory of Yankee jerseys, hoodies and World Series 2009 caps. “We all had the same question,” he said, referring to discussions with other merchants.
“How can this be a bad year for us, if the fans are going crazy for the Yankees?”
For the first time in ten years, Ahmed said he cannot afford to close his store at 161st Street and River Avenue for the winter.
Ahmed and other merchants believe that the new stadium cut into their sales, because the new subway access led directly into the baseball park preventing fans from walking past their stores. In addition, the souvenir shops located inside the sports venue provided a glut of the same merchandise. Finally, the tickets for the new stadium were more expensive than in the past, leaving less money in fans’ pockets for souvenirs.
“With the new stadium now, there is a kind of monopoly: the shops inside the stadium are the big winners here,” said Alfred, a 42-year-old Korean owner of the Concourse Card Shop on 161st Street and Gerard Avenue.
In the old Yankee Stadium, team stores occupied around 6,000 square- feet of the total surface of the park. In the new stadium, there are almost 12,000 square-feet in which merchandise is sold.
In past years, Ahmed would close his shop by late September. The profits he made during the regular season were sufficient to compensate for almost four months of inactivity. He figured it was more costly for him to pay salaries and electricity to keep it open in the off season.
“Now I have to take my chances and I will open the store to try to get some of the tourists that are coming to see the new stadium,” said Ahmed, as four customers entered the store, asked for prices, and walked out.
Alfred, who declined to give his last name, decided to stay open and slash prices. Two fluorescent paper signs outside his shop announce 50%-off discounts.
During the season, the caps cost $35.99. Now he is selling them in $32. Derek Jeter’s Fatheads are $7 — $2 less than at the beginning of the season. In the summer, Alfred laid off two employees because of poor sales. Now he and his wife work double shifts, taking only one day off during the week.
The situation is similar at the Stadium Souvenir Shop, located at the southeast exit near the Yankee Stadium Subway Station.
Abdulla Ramin said he lost considerable sales in the last six months because of the new design of the stadium. He argues that it is now inconvenient for fans to walk two or three extra blocks to get to the souvenir stores.
“Yes we have visitors, but we don’t have customers,” said Ramin.
‘Dissing’ the South Bronx
The merchants are not the only ones to lose out. The Yankee organization agreed to myriad give-backs in its Community Benefits Agreement (CBA), a document it signed with Bronx officials in order to gain their support for its new stadium. Elected officials laid out specific commitments on the part of the Yankee to compensate the community’s loss of 25 acres of parkland for the new stadium—commitments the organization has been delinquent in fulfilling.
“They have been disrespectful,” said Ramon Jimenez, one of the leaders of the local For the South Coalition. “They haven’t consulted us, they haven’t spoken to us, and they refuse to disclose the information about the agreement.”
The coalition, a growing group of at least 40 Bronx residents, is planning to file a lawsuit against the Bombers next year with legal assistance from the Urban Justice Center. The group plans to consolidate a group of 10 to 20 plaintiffs affected by the new stadium.
Back in 2006, when construction of the new baseball park began, the city promised to open the Heritage Park in the fall to replace the Macombs Dam and Mullaly parks. Those plans are now delayed until 2011.
Meanwhile, parents and children who live in the shadow of the new stadium have to take a bus to eastern sections of the Bronx to play baseball. Others are forced to crowd onto a small, synthetic football field in front of the new stadium and share space with runners, soccer and other families.
The Yankees also failed to inform the South Bronx community about the state of their commitments. The Yankees signed the CBA with the Bronx Borough President in April 2006.
The CBA designated at least 25 percent of the new jobs created by the stadium would go to local Bronx residents. There is no public information about how many Bronx residents were employed in the construction or the post-construction.
“I’ve asked personally Randy Levine for that information,” said Jimenez, referring to the New York Yankees President. “We also asked Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. for that information. I asked for the names and the addresses of the workers.” He has yet to receive an answer.
Nationwide, more 30 Community Benefits Agreement are in place in other cities, according to Amy Lavine, a staff attorney at the Government Law Center of Albany Law School.
Their details are different, but the contracts have always been negotiated and signed by community groups and the developer. The Yankee Stadium CBA was negotiated and signed between the Bronx officials and the Yankees, without taking into consideration the community groups based in Highbridge, Grand Concourse or Morris Heights, the surrounding neighborhoods of the new stadium.
The Yankee Stadium CBA does not impress Lavine, who has written several papers on CBAs. “I don’t want to say that is the worst nationwide” said Lavine, “but because it doesn’t involve any community group, it is way down at the bottom of the list.”
Jimenez, an activist and a lawyer in the South Bronx, believes the CBA was a marketing device to get support from the community, rather than an honest attempt to engage community with the development.
“How can they call it a Community Benefits Agreement if they didn’t invite any community group to sit on the table?” asked Jimenez, during a coalition meeting at on of the classrooms at Hostos Community College.
One of the provisions in the agreement requires that the Yankees would create a trust fund it would distribute each year, beginning in 2006 and through 2046. The fund allocated $800,000 in cash grants to Bronx resident not-for-profit institutions.
So far, the fund had only distributed $260,000 in 2008, and $1.6 millions in 2009. The fund also gave $500 grants to 24 Bronx Little League teams last year.
The only way to contact the fund is by its webpage (http://www.bronxyankeefund.org/), and the site only had incomplete information about the application process to get a grant and the current grantees. For the last two weeks, the site has been down.
“I’ve been trying to contact the chairman of the fund (Serafin Mariel)” said Robert Carrillo, a community organizer member of the For the South Bronx Coalition. “And I’ve tried to contact the fund by its webpage, but there is no response.”
According to Lavine, although the fund was created by a CBA, it’s a private institution and it isn’t obliged to disclose information about the grants.
“But transparency and accountability are also very important for CBA, they usually report to the community groups”, said Lavine.
Early this year, the All Hallows High School requested $40,000 from the Yankee fund because the school lost four recreation fields to the stadium. It asked for two buses to transport its baseball team to another field in the Bronx.
Initially, the request was denied. Instead, the New Yankee Stadium Community Benefits Fund donated a 600-pound pitching machine to the school for batting practice. The machine was too big for the school’s gymnasium, so it was stored in the basement.
According to Robert Carrillo, who is trying to keep track of the grants distributed by the Yankees fund, two weeks ago the All Hallows High School was given money to buy one bus.