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All things being equal, why shouldn't Flagstaff match Prescott and Page with softball field lights bright enough to attract regional and national tournaments?

Because things aren't equal.

Prescott and Page don't have an international reputation to protect as a Dark Skies community that is on the cutting edge of astronomical research. Unlike Flagstaff, those cities don't have astronomers at one of the world's leading observatories atop a hill adjacent to the ballfields saying that quadrupling the brightness of the lights right below them will seriously compromise the quality of their research and the viewing experience of 70,000 visitors a year.

In other words, the burden of proof should be on the softball enthusiasts to show why they should undermine what has taken a century for Lowell Observatory and Flagstaff as a community to achieve.

So far, they don't seem to be making the case very well. The issue isn't whether the renovated ballfields will be bright enough to make night games safe — astronomers have agreed to Class IV lighting twice as bright as the previous system.

But the softball crowd wants Class III lighting that is four times as bright, a standard they say is needed to attract tournaments. The brightness allows the spectators, who are seated farther away, to see the field of play better.

And the reason for the tournaments? To generate more tourism spending in the summer. They cite Prescott, where softball backers contend that 12 tournaments in 2004 generated $1.76 million in visitor spending.

That may sound impressive, except that Flagstaff doesn't have any trouble attracting summer tourists who already spend close to $1 billion.

Or compare softball tourney spending to the $30 million Lowell has raised on behalf of its new Discovery Telescope and to the observatory's $5 million annual budget.

Then there's the 20,000 visitors to Mars Hill each year for night viewing.

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The tradeoff begins to look lopsided.

Further, it apparently takes more than just bright lights to attract softball tournaments. Page's recreation director says the minimum is six to eight ballfields. Thorpe Park has just four.

The Flagstaff City Council is due to choose tonight between the lights favored by the astronomers and by the softball tourney backers. Some want the vote postponed until a test of the two systems can be performed. We don't think even that is necessary, regardless of whether real ambient light conditions could be replicated with just a few light poles.

Voters approved the Thorpe Park ballfield renovations a decade ago to benefit local players, not as a tourism promotion that comes at the expense of Dark Skies. It's bad enough that city officials have taken a decade to complete the project. It's time to put up the Class IV lights and 'Play ball!"

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