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The club next door: as MLS expands, concerns over gentrification loom | Football


J Henry’s is the archetypal local barbershop in Orlando. It has been part of the Parramore scenery since the 1960s, while current owner John Henry, just ‘J’ to his clientele, started work there in 1991.

The sign outside urges customers ‘Please cover your underwear before entering’, while another inside insists there be no ‘Profanity, smoking, drinking, drugs and loitering’. It’s a timeless scene in many respects, emblematic of Parramore’s essential role in Orlando’s history, dating back to the 1880s.

Just 30 feet on the other side of Church Street is a completely different business that could not be much newer and is part of the city’s dramatic modern face. The Orlando City Stadium opened in March in a blaze of purple, a state-of-the-art soccer venue heralded as a blueprint for future MLS franchises.

Henry’s is literally in the shadow of its latest neighbor, along with a handful of other local businesses that are bidding to come to terms with this new urban dynamic, labeled ‘regeneration’ by some and ‘gentrification’ by others, with a notable distaste for the term.

MLS increasingly finds itself at the forefront of this dilemma, with many recent new stadiums – notably for Houston, San Jose and Sporting Kansas City – opting for the downtown location that is a key part of league strategy to engage fans and fill seats.

Orlando’s stadium is likewise the cornerstone of a city-wide bid for revitalization. Parramore has been one its poorest districts for more than 50 years, and therein lies the rub for residents who have endured higher-than-average unemployment and crime rates in that time.

Certainly, Orlando City are helping to make this an upwardly mobile area again, and new money is coming into the area – along with rising property values and, more importantly, rising rents.

Just listen to J Henry. “There are always going to be some negatives in a situation like this. It is very much bittersweet,” he says. “The sweet part is that people who don’t [normally] come to this neighborhood are finding out about us and we’re getting more exposure and support. On game days, there is now a huge business in car parking and people are making money.

“The bitter part is the uncertainty for business owners like myself. We don’t know what our future will be. With property increasing, some owners may want to sell, and then where will J Henry’s be in future?”

J Henry's barber shop



The team at J Henry’s barber shop is wary of what Orlando City’s new stadium means for the neighborhood: “I love having a soccer team as neighbors, but that might not be enough to keep me in business.” Photograph: Simon Veness for the Guardian

The Reverend Dr Robert Spooney is the pastor of Mt Zion Missionary Baptist Church, otherwise known as The Rock of Parramore (founded in 1880), and is also concerned that the influx of new business may be disproportionately felt. “This area has been hanging on to hope for a long time,” he insists. “It’s seen a lot of false dawns.

“Everyone was dismayed when they cut off Parramore Avenue to build the stadium and, while it certainly brought construction jobs, it was not as fruitful as many imagined. It’s nice to see people doing well with things like parking, and the place is certainly busy on a Saturday or Sunday, but what is needed to sustain economic growth is housing. The population here has dwindled some 65% in the last 10 years and no stadium is going to turn that around.”

While it is still early days for Orlando City and Parramore, it is possible to see what has happened with other MLS stadiums and draw some solid conclusions.

Children’s Mercy Park was held up as an outstanding example of city-club cooperation when Kansas City opened their new venue in 2011, and Orlando City spent a long time studying their model.

Sporting needed three tries to land their ideal location, eventually settling on the Village West area. That site had already benefited from the advent of the Kansas Speedway and some major retail development, so the club’s concerns were more about fitting in rather than urban regeneration. There were still vital lessons to be learned, though.

President Jake Reid says: “This was the best scenario we could have had by far. We have a good relationship with the city, and any concerns that have popped up have been quick discussion points. That relationship was key for us – when difficulties do arise, it is an easy conversation and we move on.

“Trust was so important as we were talking through these things. You might have to have difficult conversations about how something is going to look, what the economic impact will be, and how you’re going to help support it. If you can’t trust each other at the front end, that’s where you see some of these big fights between club and city.”

The Dynamo had a more comparable process to Orlando in identifying and developing their BBVA Compass Stadium on a brownfield site in the EaDo area of Houston in 2012, with the express purpose of revitalizing business downtown. President Chris Canetti explains: “The folks with the vision behind the location can definitely pat themselves on the back because it has come to reality. This part of town is rapidly growing, there is tons of development planned around the stadium, and there is no doubt the stadium was the ignition to all of it.”

Importantly, it has also brought the kind of residential development the Reverend Spooney is hoping to see in Parramore, in the shape of brand new loft apartments. There are now 4,500 EaDo residents where there were only hundreds in the recent past.

San Jose opened their Avaya Stadium in 2015, and have already had chance to assess their overall impact on the Airport West side of the city. “The area around the stadium has turned into a great destination,” club president Dave Kaval insists. “We are building commercial real estate, too. It has really activated the gateway to the city and we think it’s beneficial for the entire community. In many ways it has become the village green for San Jose.

“This has turbo-charged the area in a way we didn’t even know was possible. We have new offices and retail and it has spurred significant economic development, helping existing businesses not just to survive but to thrive. What’s happened is that it’s created the possibility in people’s minds of going there, whether it’s to the In-N-Out Burger, the Lowe’s store, or an Earthquakes game. There is certainly an economic impact beyond a single game each week.”

Orlando City Stadium



Orlando City’s sparkling new stadium is located in the city’s Parramore section, which has been one its poorest districts for more than 50 years. Photograph: Alex Menendez/AP

Orlando consulted both Houston and Kansas City during their due diligence and, while they remain rivals on the field, there is a distinct aura of cooperation off it. “Our relationship [with Orlando] goes back to their Austin Aztex days, and there’s no doubt they used us as much as they could,” says Canetti. “We were very happy to share ideas and experiences, and it benefits the league as a whole. We have a nice stadium in a great location, and now so does Orlando. The downtown urban location is so important to development in that part of the city, and for the credibility of a club.”

Reid was equally forthcoming, adding: “Orlando’s [new stadium] team came out here several times and we had plenty of open and honest discussions about the build process. The owners are always happy to share their trials and tribulations from a business standpoint and Orlando is a good example of that, but then you look ahead to next season with LAFC coming in, and our team has been out there several times to visit. The same with Minnesota.

“I think Orlando will now become what we were, and teams will visit them to get a better understanding of the stadium process. Fortunately, we now have a ton of relevant examples within the last five years. Clubs shouldn’t be afraid to check their ego at the door and go in and ask ‘What should we be learning here?’”

If there is one thing the Lions are looking to do, it is listen, both to other clubs and, especially, its neighbors. Kay Rawlins, who helped co-found the team with Phil back in their Austin days, is the spiritual soul of the club as Orlando City’s Foundation president, and insists they will continue to be sensitive to issues within the community. Kay has worked extensively with a variety of Parramore agencies to highlight various charity initiatives and is highly thought of locally, including by J Henry and Reverend Spooney.

She says: “We can’t cure cancer, but we can look to cure something like homelessness in the area. The Foundation is here all the time and we’re running programs in everything from soccer skills to nutrition education. There is so much we have already done, but there’s even more we want to do. There are people who worry about gentrification and I understand those fears, and they won’t go unacknowledged by us.”

J Henry remains skeptical as he notices the property appraisers becoming more and more evident. Some landlords are reducing the leases on properties from seven years to just 12 months, and he suspects the writing may be on the wall for some of them.

“I used to be able to promise my son that, one day, this business would be his,” he says. “Now I can’t make that promise anymore. To my mind, it is more negative than positive, but you can’t focus on it. I love having a soccer team as neighbors, but that might not be enough to keep me in business.”



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