- The Washington Times - Friday, October 13, 2000

Pro sports' long hold on public money for stadiums and arenas may be ending.
After a decade that saw more than $5 billion of public money spent nationwide on new stadiums and renovations, taxpayers are increasingly showing their impatience. The amounts of public money sought for new buildings are often smaller, and the votes are closer and require much more lobbying to secure voter support.
A vote next month in Maricopa County, Ariz., to raise $1.8 billion for a complex of tourism and sports facilities that includes a new stadium for the Arizona Cardinals will fail if recent local polls hold up. Stadium supporters have outspent opponents by more than a 200-1 ratio on lobbying and advertising, but trail by anywhere from 2 to 15 points in local polls.
In Green Bay, Wis., home to arguably the most passionate and loyal fans in the NFL, a sales tax increase to raise $160 million for renovations to Lambeau Field passed by only a 53-47 percent percent margin. Green Bay residents on several occasions have saved the Packers from leaving the small, blue-collar city. But this time, Packers president Bob Harlan needed to lobby one voter at a time even skipping his first Packers game in decades right up until the final hour to rally the needed support.
In New York, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani for years has sought new stadiums for the Yankees, Mets and Jets. But each time a proposal is publicly floated, either the City Council or Gov. George E. Pataki spikes the idea before it gains any true steam. Where each of those three teams will be playing in five years remains an open question.
The collective change of heart owes to many factors soaring stadium costs, franchise values and player salaries; ticket costs outstripping the reach of many average fans; and reams of scholarly research arguing that new stadiums and arenas never deliver the promises of economic benefits, most notably failing to generate large numbers of quality full-time jobs.
There is also a historical crossroads at hand as Milwaukee's County Stadium, the nation's first publicly built stadium at a cost of $4.8 million, two weeks ago saw its last game after 47 years of use.
"There are some definite signs out there that the tide may be turning," said Raymond Keating, chief economist for the District of Columbia-based Small Business Survival Committee and an outspoken opponent of stadium subsidies. "These are always tough calls because these issues are played out at very local levels. But as time goes on and more data is collected on prior efforts, opposition groups just get more and more ammunition."
The backlash actually began brewing more than a year ago in a handful of cities. Since the beginning of 1999, stadium or arena bills in Charlotte, N.C.; St. Paul, Minn.; Houston; and Mesa, Ariz., all failed, while continued efforts by the Minnesota Twins and Vikings to replace the Metrodome in Minneapolis remain firmly stalled in the tracks of Gov. Jesse Ventura, perhaps the country's most vocal anti-stadium politician.
Resistance has now grown to the point where some teams fear even seeking public money for new ballparks. Nelson Doubleday, co-owner of the Mets, told the Associated Press, "I don't seek a great deal of taxpayer money to build the New York Mets a [new] stadium." The team is now exploring the far cheaper option of renovating Shea Stadium.
The NFL, which deeply loathes franchise moves, in its wisdom saw the resistance developing some time ago and pushed for many of its teams to line up new buildings as soon as possible. The league helped engineer a minor stadium boom that will yield 10 new stadiums opening between 1998 and 2002, with more than $2 billion of public money going to those projects.
But the league also created last year a new internal stadium fund that will aid many of the new efforts. Stadiums opening in 2002 for New England, Seattle and Detroit each will have more than half of their costs paid with private money, much of through stadium naming rights and personal seat licenses a stark contrast to stadiums in Baltimore, Cincinnati and Atlanta built during the past decade en tirely with public money.
Rodney Fort, an economics professor at Washington State University who writes extensively on sports finance, said public support for pro stadiums could easily be stronger.
"The people pushing for these referendums often seek to set the money to an amount that will be just able to pass. In other words, the most they can get away with," Fort said. "You would definitely have a higher level of acceptance with smaller expenditures, even slight reductions. Just look at the minor leagues."
Minor League Baseball, whose new stadium projects rarely top $60 million, have reliably found public help. Of course, it also helps supporters of those projects that many minor league teams eke out only small annual profits and most players earn less than the fans attending those games.
But scaling back major league stadium projects has proved to be difficult as installing more high-tech amenities and larger luxury sections have quickly driven construction costs upward. Of those 10 NFL stadiums recently opened or under construction, several have already encountered significant cost overruns, most notably Baltimore and Cincinnati. New baseball stadiums in Seattle and San Francisco also failed to meet original budgets.
The flash point for this November's stadium referendums will be Arizona and Proposition 302, which will raise hotel and car rental taxes to raise the money. The Cardinals failed last year to find public support for a similar project in Mesa, Ariz., and another failure could signal the end of the team's stay in the state. A recent poll found the anti-stadium faction leading by 2 percentage points, within the margin of error, but most pollsters concede that group's support is far more solid.
"Our supporters cut across so many demographics senior citizens, middle-aged mortgage holders, soccer moms. And they will all be coming out to the polls," said David Molina, president of Valley Business Owners and Concerned Citizens Inc., which is leading the anti-302 group. "I think it's time to wake up and finally realize that all the claims of stadiums being major economic drivers are deeply flawed."
Supporters of 302 say the stadium angst is badly misdirected.
"I think if this was just about a new stadium for the Cardinals, it would still pass," said Joe Yuhas, campaign manager for Arizona Wins. "But this proposition is about much more. In fact, only 35 percent of the funds will go to the stadium. This effort includes promotion for tourism, youth sports facilities, money for the Fiesta Bowl and Cactus League baseball."

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