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Ralph Nader's op-ed opposing taxpayer subsidies for a new Patriots stadium in Hartford

Who Are We Kidding With This Sweetheart Deal?
by Ralph Nader

The owner of the New England Patriots, Robert K. Kraft, placed a large advertisement in a Boston newspaper on Nov. 22, 1998, in which he said:

"I was willing to spend hundreds of millions of my own money to privately finance a stadium, but was never given the opportunity."

What Kraft wanted from a rejectionist legislature in Boston was $77 million in taxpayer subsidies to bolster his private new stadium investment.

So the Massachusetts mogul goes to Gov. John G. Rowland and signs an 18-page memorandum of understanding that would obligate Connecticut taxpayers to build a $375 million football stadium, hand over almost total control of the stadium's events and revenues, rent-free, for 30 years, and give him a $176 million, 10-year guarantee of occupancy for all premium seats and luxury suites, payment of all general liability insurance, $15 million for a Patriots' training facility and free land beneath Kraft's hotel investment which would be property-tax exempt.

If all these giveaways don't qualify the Patriots for a change of name to the New England Freeloaders, there are still more corporate welfare benefits in the fine print, including stadium naming rights and a large capital-improvement fund reaching $115 million.

Now we know why Rowland, after 10 pre-election meetings with Kraft, kept his agreement secret from the people of Connecticut.

It was not just that, in his words, he did not want "300 candidates" debating the proposal because it wasn't the way to arrive at good decision-making.

It was not just that he didn't want the voters to know that he agreed to Kraft's ultimatum for a special session of the state legislature to rush it through during the holiday season.

It was that the deal itself is so unconscionable a heist of taxpayer dollars, so one-sided in favor of a multi-millionaire as to be unstable, not just super-greedy, and so absurd as an economic development vehicle for Hartford that it could not stand public scrutiny over a decent period of time.

For starters, the $375 million figure is low-balling. The usual cost overrun for such taxpayer-funded stadiums is at least 20 percent. Add the probable acquisition costs for the CNG steam plant relocation, the estimated $50 million for environmental remediation, and the ramps and other infrastructure costs and you can see why the eminent sports economist, Professor Andrew Zimbalist of Smith College, puts the bill for this super-sweetheart deal at $670 million, with the state taking all the costs and many of the open-ended liabilities.

Zimbalist, who is expected to testify at the Dec. 9 legislative hearing, challenges the basic premise of Rowland's deal that it will be good for both Hartford's and the state's economy. That's a categorically false argument, he noted, adding that "no independent study would support that."

Together with Stanford University economist Roger Noll, Zimbalist has studied the optimistic projections of other football stadiums and other professional sports' subsidized schemes. The gross and net job gains are pathetic, given the public investment, and the costs to the taxpayers much higher than projected by purchased accounting firm studies.

For example, the re-built stadium for the Oakland Raiders is already costing the city $21 million a year in deficits.

Rowland is talking about using some $100 million from the projected state budget surplus fed in part by his cuts in the $300-a-month welfare benefits for single mothers.

Far better for the economy is to spend the money on community-based small business development and repair of the Hartford public school system than to erect a Roman circus whose ticket prices most fans cannot afford.

Even within its own assumptions, the Rowland-Patriots project fails to leverage additional private investment to elaborate the development beyond the stadium-hotel complex. It is very noticeable that, notwithstanding the vociferous boosterism for the Patriots deal by corporate Hartford, led by some insurance company executives, very little hard investment commitments have been made by these big time capitalists. Even firm orders for the skyboxes are not gushing forth.

Perhaps most disturbing about this official stampede for the Patriots is fear and intimidation reflected by groups that would be expected to challenge the deal with pertinent, unanswered questions.

Although some legislators are beginning to speak out, the state's taxpayer watchdog groups have been silent or, at least, have decided that they have other proposals before the state government that cannot be jeopardized.

I had expected that the Connecticut Public Expenditure Council in former years a vigilent overseer would take a stand and it has not, as of yet. Other taxpayer associations and citizen groups have yet to speak up, although I know that they do not like the excesses or the empty promises of the arrangement.

Former legislator and state comptroller Bill Curry is raising pertinent questions. Will state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal?

A word for the "slam-it-through-minded" state legislators: Give the people a decent interval of three months to inquire and deliberate this proposal. At the least they can help you make it better for the state with certain changes that will make it more sustainable for servicing the debt and multiplying additional local economic activity.

If you insist on rushing this "pig-in-the-poke" through, you will not be putting the matter behind you. More than an albatross, this gravely deficient and wobbly giveaway may well prove to be a thorn in your collective throats that you neither can spit out nor swallow.

A transition from the Whalers to the White Elephant is one that your citizens can save you from if you give them more time, instead of admitting that the deal is so vulnerable that it has to be speed-driven to the governor's desk by mid-December.

Oh, and one more thing. If they build this stadium, I've got a better name than any corporate logo someone might pay handsomely for: Let's call it Taxpayer Stadium.