Ballparks, corporate welfare
by Ralph Nader
How did Mayor Tony Williams decide that D.C. government should get in the business of entertaining its citizens as opposed to educating them, and providing other essential public programs and services that benefit D.C. residents? Mr. Williams’ plan for $383 million in public money to bankroll a stadium to lure a profit-motivated, monopoly entertainment corporation like Major League Baseball is corporate welfare run amok.
Art Modell, former owner of the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns and beneficiary of a taxpayer-financed stadium deal to relocate his own franchise, once told reporters, “The pride and presence of a professional football team is far more important than 30 libraries, and I say that with all due respect to the learning process.”
This is proving to be the civic philosophy of Mr. Williams. In a city with a 37 percent functional adult illiteracy rate, the mayor’s public giveaway offer for the “pride and presence” of a baseball franchise continues to rise, while the District’s 27 woefully underfunded neighborhood libraries have fallen to 51st out of the 50 states and the District (according to Hennen’s American Public Library Ratings). Mr. Modell must feel prescient.
Last year, a few public meetings were held by representatives of the mayor and the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission to discuss the benefits of the stadium plan. Residents saw through the stale promises that a stadium would pay for itself. The plan was hammered for its excessive public financing; diversion of tax revenue away from the general treasury; disruption and displacement of residents; the mostly low-pay, low-benefit seasonal job creation; and the likelihood that most D.C. families would not be able to afford tickets while the favored ownership group, reportedly worth $3 billion, would enjoy a financial windfall on the backs of those families.
Independent economists agree that stadiums do not boost the economy, as Mr. Williams claims, but rather divert tax revenues from other areas. As Smith College economist Andrew Zimbalist wrote last year, “There are very few fields of economic research that produce unanimous agreement. Yet every independent economic analysis of the impact of stadiums has found no predictable positive effect on output or employment. Some studies have even concluded that there is a possible negative impact.”
This year, as baseball’s infamous game of pitting cities against each other for the best taxpayer-squeezing deal wears on, Mr. Williams continues to encourage baseball’s pathological greed. His offers of public subsidy have swelled from $200 million, to $275 million, to $300 million, to $339 million and now up to $383 million.
The mayor’s stadium proposal has become even more disturbing as changes to the details of his financing plan are kept secret. No more informing the public of the concessions he is making to baseball, no discussions with neighborhood residents and no public hearings. Against pleas to end the secrecy, Mr. Williams apparently has decided that since his stadium scheme has failed to hold up to the scrutiny of D.C. residents in the past, it is the residents rather than the proposal that should be eliminated from the process.
Any financing package would have to get through the D.C. Council before a shovel is put in the ground. But the mayor even went so far as to suggest to baseball officials that he could get a financing plan through the council “in a snap.” Council members Adrian Fenty, a Democrat from Ward 4, and David Catania, an at-large Republican, beg to differ. They have written that they cannot support a baseball stadium financed entirely or substantially with public money and have pledged that public input will be required before moving forward.
As baseball’s squeeze-play on the District heats up, it is important to remember that the District already has a unique stadium that would be a great permanent location for baseball. With some willpower and ingenuity, there is little that a new stadium could provide that RFK Stadium could not. Baseball should team with D.C. United and privately finance the renovation of RFK, making it usable and profitable for both.
The real, everyday lives of D.C. residents is not something Major League Baseball cares about, but it is the only thing with which Mr. Williams and the D.C. Council should be concerned. In a city like the District, where the poverty rate is 20 percent; where the gap between rich and poor is as wide as any other major U.S. city (according to the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute); where affordable housing is scarce, public schools inadequate, drinking water contaminated, job training, public health and youth programs deficient, libraries crumbling, and public transit services reduced despite higher fares, funding entertainment is not the business of city government.
In a city where the pressing public needs are many, the District cannot afford to squander its limited resources on a baseball stadium to enhance the private profit of monopoly sports moguls.
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