- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Good things, we are told, come to cities that build sports stadiums and arenas.

In homes and offices, yards and taverns, fans track the local team’s highs and lows and gain a new sense of civic identity. Children learn the eternal verities of teamwork and sacrifice. Sidewalks bustle with activity. Businesses pop up all over. Residents renovate their homes. Neighbors become more engaged in public life. Outsiders spend hundreds of millions of dollars, which magically multiply as they circulate through local cash registers.

Don’t believe it.

For decades, a monopolistic sports industry has extracted billions from state and local governments for new stadiums and other loot. Armed with bogus consultants’ studies predicting economic renaissance, the sports cabal uses the glamour of “major league” status to get facilities and other benefits worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

At public expense, state and local governments have built new stadiums in Baltimore and Chicago, Detroit and Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Seattle, Atlanta and Philadelphia, Phoenix and Denver. Many cities destroy perfectly good old stadiums to prevent other leagues and teams from using them.

Independent studies show that no matter how glorious the team and how grand the stadium, sports adds little to the local economy. The reason is simple: Dollars from construction and stadium activity immediately cycle out of the area to contractors, players and out-of-town concessionaires.

In a study of the impact of the 1994 baseball strike, John Zipp found that local economies often do better when the team is idle. During the strike, game-day traffic ceased to scare away people who might go to area restaurants and stores.

Now Washington, starving for baseball since the Nixon administration, has entered a pact worthy of “Damn Yankees.” For a chance at ephemeral glory, Mayor Anthony Williams wants to commit the District to a long-term burden for short-term glory.

Major League Baseball has negotiated a sweet deal for the Montreal Expos to move to the District. Washington already has a stadium accessible to highways and public transportation — with renovations, a perfectly good place to play ball — but Commissioner Bud Selig wants to build a new stadium at a new site for $435 million. Count on that cost ballooning past $600 million or more. Public works projects invariably run over budget by at least 25 percent.

All the benefits, of course, go to the yet-to-be-named owner of the club.

Mr. Selig got this deal even though none of the other localities seeking the Expos — Las Vegas, Portand, Northern Virginia, San Juan — posed real competition to Washington. Mr. Selig got Mr. Williams to compete against himself, ratcheting up the cost of hosting the team.

But there’s a way out.

The D.C. Council should start by voting down the exorbitant deal. Tell baseball that the mayor is not king, that local democracies must respond to a wide range of voices and choices. At the very least, the stadium does not need the Anacostia site. If a new stadium is really needed, the parcel by RFK Stadium will do nicely. And the team’s new owner can pay for it.

When the council acts, Mr. Selig will huff and puff about betrayal. Let him. Just don’t allow Mr. Selig’s wailing to force a con job on the District.

When the recriminations die down, baseball will probably play at RFK for at least a couple years. Why would baseball want to continue to play before crowds in the hundreds when a perfectly good alternative exists — and the possibility of something even better awaits?

The next key moment comes when baseball puts the team up for auction. Out there lurks a billionaire or syndicate not only eager to buy the team, but also willing to make substantial investments in a new or refurbished stadium. Mr. Selig wanted to increase the team’s value before selling it by getting a favorable stadium deal. But it makes sense to call his bluff and get him to sell the team first. Once a new owner emerges, real negotiations can begin.

Then Washington can recommit itself to a real revival of Anacostia and the rest of the city. Real urban vitality comes from good schools, safe streets, housing and efficient public services. Vitality results when local governments do a few things well, rather than everything poorly. It requires a strong infrastructure, reasonable tax and regulatory systems and innovations like Milwaukee’s school choice policy and Baltimore’s CitiStat program.

When Joe Boyd made a pact with the devil in “Damn Yankees” to become Joe Hardy and lead the Washington Senators to a pennant, he was smart enough to negotiate an escape clause. Washington has an escape clause, too. It’s democracy’s provision of checks and balances.

The D.C. Council needs to protect the city’s interests and reject the foolish deal to build a new D.C. stadium. Then the real game can begin.

Charles C. Euchner is the author of “Playing the Field: Why Sports Teams Move and Cities Fight to Keep Them amd coauthor of “Urban Policy Reconsidered: Dialogues on the Problems and Prospects of American Cities.”

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