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Damn Yankees

Local business drops in new stadium’s first year

By Andrew Lampard
November 19, 2009
Photo Credit: Andrew Lampard

Photo Credit: Andrew Lampard

It was the top of the sixth inning in the first game of the World Series between the New York Yankees and the Philadelphia Phillies and Joe Bastone’s Yankee Tavern was at half-capacity.

The start of the game had been better. “It was busy, not crazy,” said Bastone, 52, the owner and president of the famous Bronx bar and restaurant. Considering the current economic climate, the bar’s crowd may have been a surprise. But this was no ordinary baseball game.

The Yankees were playing in their new home, no more than a block away from Bastone’s tavern on 161st Street.

Despite upbeat reports from City Hall and Bronx business developers, poor revenues have been the storyline all season long for Bastone and other small business owners in the district. In addition to the economy, they blame the new Yankee Stadium, which opened this year directly across from the old stadium on 161st Street and River Avenue, for their financial problems.

“Business is down 20 percent this year from last year,” said Bastone, whose revenues are better than what others reported. He blames the poor economy and the added competition from the new stadium’s myriad vending options.

According to his restaurant’s website, Bastone’s family has owned the Yankee Tavern since 1923, the same year the old Yankee Stadium was built. That stadium was long adored by surrounding businesses because it brought millions of fans to the borough and it did not have the amenities to negatively compete with its neighboring bars, restaurants, and stores.

The new stadium, while having 4,500 fewer seats, is teeming with material and gastronomic temptations. The Yankees report on their website that the new stadium’s 444 fixed and portable concession stands represent a 44 percent increase in available food outlets from the previous stadium. Some of its dining options, like the NYY Steakhouse and Hard Rock Café, operate year-round. Both establishments open onto the corner of 161st Street and River Avenue.

“This is a huge transition from last year when the stadium closed,” said John Michialis, 29, the manager of Billy’s, an 8500 square foot bar that also has entrances on 161st Street and River Avenue. He said sales have decreased 30 percent from 2008. But last year was special: “Everyone wanted to experience that [stadium] for the last time, experience something that was no longer going to be.”

Now, he said, potential customers are experiencing something new across the street but “across the street is like a shopping mall. That’s why all the businesses out here are hurting. Everyone is spending their money in there.”

Whether the economy has thrown off the Yankees’ sales projections is unclear. Rob Burnstein, a media spokesperson for the Yankees, said the team was too busy with the World Series to comment.

Area businesses have noticed a change in the clientele doing the spending. Evan Doyle, 24, a manager of Stan’s Sports World, a Yankees’ souvenir shop next to Billy’s second entrance on River Avenue, said his business has been negatively affected by fewer “diehard” fans coming to games. According to Doyle, these fans frequented the old stadium more because tickets were cheaper and they bought merchandise when they came. Doyle said he believes the “diehards” can no longer afford the new stadium’s prices; instead, he sees more corporate types who come to games to see the stadium and meet with clients. “I don’t think I have ever seen more games where people leave tied games in the ninth inning ever before in my life, and I have worked here for eight years.”

Up the street and closer to the stadium is Stadium Souvenirs, run by Qahtan Salahi, 20. Salahi, whose store is across from the stadium on the corner of 161st Street and River Avenue, said his store’s revenues are down 30 percent. He also blames the economy, but said the Yankees have not helped matters. Salahi said he used to purchase merchandise wholesale from the Yankees’ when they were in the old stadium but the Yankees severed that relationship when they moved. Salahi said he now purchases directly from Majestic, the official maker of Yankees’ merchandise, and that is more expensive. To remain competitive, he has not altered his prices.

Both Stan’s and Stadium Souvenirs are cheaper than the Yankee Stadium Team Store, the team’s official merchandise store, which is open all year to the public. A New Era hat, which costs $42 at the official store, sells for 40 dollars at Stan’s and $35 at Stadium Souvenirs. An official home jersey, $200 dollars at the Yankees’ store, goes for $195 at Stan’s and $160 at Stadium Souvenirs.

The city’s revamped crowd-control schematics on game days also hurt businesses, said Michialis. According to several River Avenue vendors, the city shut down a subway exit and put up barricades on the East side of the street at the start of the season in order to funnel spectators immediately into the stadium.

“They never did that before,” Michialis said, referring to how street schematics worked with the old stadium. “They never used to have MTA officers direct people across the street. Why now? To train people where to go.”

An e-mail sent to police headquarters seeking comment was not returned.

Many of the business owners complained but “no matter what you do you can’t really fight the Yankees,” said Rodriguez, shrugging his shoulders. “The city always sides with them so it’s not like you’re just fighting the Yankees, you’re fighting City Hall as well.”

For this year’s playoffs, the city estimated each Yankee home game would generate $11.9 million in citywide spending by out-of-town spectators, according to the Economic Development Corporation, a non-profit organization that helped redevelop the area around the stadium.

Citing data it received from the Yankees, Major League Baseball, and NYC & Company, the city’s official marketing arm, the EDC said $5.8 million from every playoff game would be pocketed by the city’s tourism sector. An additional $5.2 million goes towards non-tourism businesses. The remainder goes to the team.

The EDC would not specify how much revenue the community around the stadium received from playoff games.

According to Michialis, revenues have risen in the playoffs, “but you have to remember: this is the playoffs. This has nothing to do with how the year has been.”

Not everyone in the community sees the new ballpark as a detriment to local businesses. Dr. Cary Goodman, the executive director in charge of the district’s business improvement, said he believes the people who come to Yankee games will eventually help renew the Bronx once the construction and park replacement projects end in 2012. Were every game to sell out in the regular season, the new stadium would have more than four million visitors a year.

When asked to comment on specific statements made by business owners, Goodman acknowledged that stadium competition, new clientele, and security measures negatively affected the area in the first half of the season. Although “all that changed midway through the season, when a few people who had been to games lost their allure to the new stadium and began to explore the area,” Goodman said. He added that he personally complained to the 44th Precinct’s Inspector Dermot Shae, the officer responsible for traffic control during games. According to Goodman, “Police removed the barricades, put up signs at the Metro North station that pointed to 161st street business and listed its restaurants, snacks, sports bars, and souvenir shops.”

Goodman said he was disappointed that the businesses would say they performing poorly: “If you go into Billy’s, Stan’s, and the Yankee Tavern, they are packed! YOU can’t move in there! And if I go up there tonight, you’ll be lucky if you can get in.”

From the sixth inning during the first World Series game, the Bronx was fairly quiet. Billy’s crowd was 25 percent of its capacity of 400. It had been busier at the start of the game said Chantal Denise, a waitress, but not too crowded.

Outside on River Avenue, barricades had been placed on the sidewalk on in front of the store. “To direct people into the stadium,” said Captain Joe Holmes of the 44th Precinct.

Midway through the eighth inning, there was a glimmer of hope for businesses worried that fans would do all their eating and drinking inside the stadium: three fans left the game early. “What do you expect? The Yankees are losing,” said Nael Zayas, 48, of North Bergen, NJ. “We may as well watch them lose in a bar while drinking three beers for $10 instead of spending $10 dollars for one.”

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