No Whitecaps means $10M less for area businesses

PLAINFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Businesses near Fifth Third Ballpark just north of Grand Rapids are preparing for a big financial hit after the West Michigan Whitecaps’ 2020 season was canceled.

Word came Tuesday that Minor League Baseball was calling off the season, making this the first summer since 1901 that there won’t be minor league ball.

“It definitely took a little wind out of the sail. We know that baseball and our park go hand in hand,” said Tom Bennett, the general manager for AJ’s Family Fun Center, which practically shares the same parking lot as the Whitecaps’ stadium in Comstock Park.

Like similar entertainment venues all over the state, AJ’s shut down in March under Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s coronavirus restrictions. It reopened its outdoor sports two weeks ago, though the indoor arcade is still closed.

“Right now, all of our outside attractions are open, which is the batting cages, the mini golf. We have two go-kart tracks and bumper boats,” Bennett listed.

AJ’s staff says Whitecaps game days are some of their busiest days of the year. Without the foot traffic from the games, they’re expecting a serious loss of revenue.

“It’s hard. We’re probably affected by about 50% right now not having the Whitecaps open,” said Bennett. 

Grand Valley State University economics professor Paul Isely is predicting similar affects for bars and restaurants near the stadium.

“Businesses are already weakened because of having to deal with the last three months, which for many businesses has meant the end of that business,” Isely said.

He said the community stands to lose about $10 million in sales due to the season cancellation, explaining that people spend, on average, between $20 and $40 when in town for sports games. 

“Spectator sports like that will draw people from further away than just directly in the city. It will bring those people into the city and they’ll purchase things not only at the ballpark or at the event but they’ll also do things like buy gasoline, go out to eat and maybe stay in a hotel room,” Isely said. “As they spend that money, it’s money that wouldn’t exist in the Grand Rapids area (otherwise).”

Isely said businesses being able to survive and remain open will largely depend on the community taking proper safety precautions to prevent further spread of COVID-19. Health officials have called on people to continue to practice social distancing, keep gatherings small and wear masks.

During a Wednesday morning press conference, Whitecaps officials said they are hoping to host other public, private and corporate events at the ballpark this summer.

“What we’re really watching is the public health landscape, and when we feel like the events we’re looking at are appropriate, we’re going to plug them in and get going,” CEO Joe Chamberlin said. “We’re looking forward to helping our region get back to normalcy even if we’re not playing baseball.”

He said the large outdoor venue should be able to allow for appropriate social distancing and health safety restrictions.

With nothing set in stone yet, surrounding businesses say all they can do is hope for the best. The staff at AJ’s say they’re extending their normal season until October to try to recoup some of the money lost.

—News 8’s Larry Figurski contributed to this report.