By Jim Bleyer
Fifteen months ago the people and politicians of a major American city stood up to protect their region’s economic health and integrity by rejecting a shakedown from a billionaire owner of a big-league sports franchise.
But the citizens of San Diego had three major advantages over their counterparts in Hillsborough County where special interests are intent on bilking taxpayers to build a new baseball stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays.
—Public funding of a new stadium for the NFL Chargers was put to a referendum with passage requiring a 67 percent supermajority;
—The political will existed to push back against a blackmailing bully, in this case Dean Spanos, scion of real estate magnate Alex Spanos;
—Access to accurate, complete information from the San Diego Union-Tribune which reported all facets of the issue.
San Diegans killed public financing, 57-43 percent, not even a majority let alone the required threshold. The ballot measure asked voters whether they wanted to increase the city’s hotel room tax rate from 12.5% to 16.5%, with the proceeds to fund a new $1.8 billion stadium and convention center. The tax increase was to repay $1.15 billion in bonds, leaving the Chargers and NFL to pay the remaining $650 million.
What’s happened since the ballot defeat? The Chargers moved to a temporary facility in Costa Mesa playing the 2017 season to a fraction of the audience they drew in San Diego. Half the fans rooted for the opposition. The Rays are used to that; the Chargers weren’t. When the Chargers move to a larger, modern stadium in Inglewood for the 2020 season, the facility will be shared with the Los Angeles Rams.
Meanwhile, life goes on without the Chargers in San Diego. Most citizens are bitter at the Spanos family; a tiny minority actually trek to Charger games. The city is still a hotspot for high-tech innovation, an incubator for Broadway-bound theatre, home of the historic Gaslamp Quarter, culturally diverse and harmonic, an attractive beach and surfing destination and much more.
Despite offering a specific plan that had adequate access, didn’t destroy neighborhoods, and meshed with a convention center, San Diegans saw through the bamboozle of transferring wealth to a billionaire and shot down the proposal by a healthy margin.
The stadium scheme in Tampa has nothing to recommend it. A new playpen doesn’t guarantee Rays owner Stuart Sternberg will spend more than a pittance on payroll, reduce the abominable number of food safety violations, or ditch players coming into their prime to cut costs. It does guarantee to increase the value of the Rays franchise by a half billion. That’s the name of the game.
Look at the above rendering. The combo stadium-convention center in San Diego blends with the neighborhood and has adequate access. The proposed Rays stadium in Ybor City (below) is shoehorned into a unique, celebrated district. Access and parking are difficult if not laughable.
San Diego also had one definitive financing source; Tampa’s revenue origins are uncertain as special interests and their toady politicians are scrambling to cobble together a taxpayer-funded sports subsidy.
As for the plan, San Diego actually had a specific one. The Union-Tribune ran factual balanced accounts about the stadium campaign, its pros and cons. Hillsborough County residents, the few who subscribe anyway, are not as fortunate with the Tampa Bay Times publishing slanted articles and omitting important facts.
The Times is rolling over for Sternberg, real estate interests, and the investors who temporarily bailed it out of bankruptcy.
Politicians love hotel taxes because this levy is the embodiment of taxation without representation. Prancers to the pork barrel polka, such as Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan, look for any means to leverage tax dollars to fund their “legacy.” They abhor referendums that allow the public to interfere with their gifts to special interests. They would find a super majority requirement lethal to their indulgences.
Taxpayers in other cities that paid for stadiums often discover they are still on the hook long after the team departed. In New York when the Giants bolted the Big Apple for New Jersey, taxpayers were still paying off $110 million in debt on the old stadium. St. Louis lost the Rams, but they didn’t lose $144 million in stadium debt the team bequeathed.
Philip K. Porter, Professor of Economics at the University of South Florida, terms sports subsidies as a “transfer of wealth” and competition for funding with more needed municipal services regardless of the revenue source.
Of the 38 metropolitan areas with at least one major professional sports team, Tampa ranks fourth in per capita subsidy, according to Porter. That number will only increase if the Ybor City boondoggle comes to fruition.
His report, “Public Subsidies and the Location and Pricing of Sports,” can be found here.
According to Michael Leeds, an economist at Temple University, “If every sports team in Chicago were to suddenly disappear, the impact on the Chicago economy would be a fraction of 1 percent. A baseball team has about the same impact on a community as a midsize department store.”
Victor Matheson, a sports economist at College of the Holy Cross, is dubious of the economic hype surrounding professional sports facilities.
“A good rule of thumb that economists use is to take what stadium boosters are telling you and move that one decimal place to the left, and that’s usually a good estimate of what you’re going to get,” Matheson says.
Economists say the biggest reason sports teams don’t have much impact is that they don’t ignite new spending. Most people have a limited entertainment budget, so the dollars they shell out for a game is money they would have spent elsewhere such as a restaurant or small businesses where more money would have stayed in the community. Matheson added that instead of drawing people to a neighborhood, games can actually repel them.
That certainly applies to Ybor, one of America’s most storied, culturally significant and eclectic neighborhoods. And how much of the money that absentee owner Sternberg rakes in from his revenue sharing/cheapskate payroll template do you think remains in the Bay area?
When politicians like Hagan and Buckhorn go directly to “how should we fund the stadium” omitting all the intermediate steps and any taxpayer comment let alone vote, they’ve already lubed the public to assume the position that shoveling tax bucks toward a sports facility should be the correct priority. It eliminates discussion of uplifting economically depressed neighborhoods, educating and assisting disenfranchised youth, properly training and retraining law enforcement officers, and addressing infrastructure needs.
Buckhorn and Hagan, abetted in their misinformation campaign by the Tampa Bay Times, obsess with burnishing their legacies, however fleeting, and rewarding their real estate cronies plus Sternberg with hundreds of millions.
Tampa residents are victims of this squeeze play.