Opinion: Studies blow hole in new stadium hype

Staff file photo/AT&T Field is still the home stadium of the Chattanooga Lookouts.

To borrow a cliche from another sport, it looks like the Chattanooga Lookouts - and proponents of a new baseball stadium largely free to the Lookouts' owners - are mounting a full court press to convince the public and our leaders it's OK to use our money to build the new sports palace.

Last week, two dozen people from Chattanooga and Hamilton County toured a similarly funded new minor league ballfield and stadium in Columbia, S.C., where Columbia officials extolled the virtues of that ballpark's influence as "a catalyst for more private sector development."

It was exactly the kind of pep pablum Chattanooga leaders want us to swallow for a proposed $86.5 million ballpark for the Lookouts. They want us to think only of what they tout as the intended yield for the 141-acre Wheland Foundry/U.S. Pipe parcel in the South Broad District of our city.

Did we mention that the Lookout's managing owner and chief executive, Jason Freier, also is the owner of the Columbia ball team where our officials got the hard sell?

And did we mention that our leaders - including the city and county mayors and a number of council members and county commissioners and candidates for re-election and new election later this year - took the tour and apparently drank the Kool-Aid after traveling to Columbia on a bus paid by the Lookouts?

Finally, did we mention a third ball team also owned by Freier, the Fort Wayne TinCaps, also recently got a new stadium paid for with taxpayer welfare? And, yes, the TinCaps' president Mike Nutter also was recruited to sell the Chattanooga public on the taxpayer public assistance idea.

"People underestimated [in Fort Wayne] at the time the amount of non-baseball stuff [that would follow if a city built it so they would come]," Nutter told the Chattanooga Times Free Press for a story published Sunday. Nutter said the ballpark helped get Fort Wayne's "swagger and confidence back."

Build anything and they will come. New development always spurs more new development. Just like broken windows in a rundown neighborhood spurs more broken windows and blight.

Here's the thing: Wealthy team owners don't need their stadiums built for them with our dimes. Nor should they bully us with not-so-veiled threats that if we don't pony up our money they'll look elsewhere. There's a pattern of that. More on this later.

Sure, there are some things taxpayers can and should pay for to help spur development. We've mentioned before that our tax dollars were used fractionally for the park around the privately funded Tennessee Aquarium.

And the aquarium did spur additional development and revenue for Chattanooga and Hamilton County - to the tune of nearly $3.3 billion in economic impact, according to the UT Center for Sustainable Business and Development. Similarly, it won't take only our dollars to create a transformation in South Broad.

Ask Good Jobs First, a national policy resource center that tracks subsidies to promote corporate and government accountability. The group has looked at how and why taxpayer dollars have been used to help finance the construction of new stadiums.

"Politicians of all stripes are taken in by the assumption that the presence of a professional sports team is a leading contributor to the vitality of cities. So strong is this notion that public officials are willing to give team owners subsidies that go far beyond what other private-sector businesses can hope for," says the group's website.

How is it that scarce public resources come to be used to finance construction for what are typically quite profitable local monopolies? The short answer is threats, dating back to 1953 when Brooklyn lost the Dodgers, according to Good Jobs First.

The group quotes the book "Field of Schemes," a compelling critique of stadium subsidies: "It's difficult to find a major U.S. city that hasn't been cajoled, threatened or blackmailed into building a new sports palace."

But that money doesn't bring much bang for the buck. Contrary to hype, the stadiums are not job generators. Each sport is limited to its season and half the games are played out of town. Aside from the small number of athletes, the jobs tend to be part-time, intermittent and low-wage with low or no benefits. The construction jobs evaporate once the palace is built.

As for the "indirect job creation" hawked by team owners and subsidy supporters, the expected new activity with bars, restaurants, even apartments, et al., are often inflated because they are written by the community's convention and visitors bureau.

"The conclusion of the overwhelming majority of studies is that stadium subsidies do not pay off in terms of economic growth or job creation. The limited number of jobs that might be created comes at a high cost to taxpayers - often well above $100,000 each," Good Jobs First writes. "This theme of subsidies as a bad investment for cities permeated the most extensive scholarly volume on the subject: Sports, Jobs and Taxes, a 500-plus page anthology published by the Brookings Institution. In their opening chapter, Roger Noll and Andrew Zimbalist conclude that new sports facilities 'rarely, if ever, are worthwhile. Sometimes they can be financially catastrophic.' "

Think about that, taxpayers.