We've got Trouble right here in the Twin Cities.
If you've seen The Music Man, then the story of Harold Hill will be familiar to you. His pitch to the citizens of River City about how a boys band can halt the problems of smoking, drinking, and the like amongst the city's youth will no doubt sound familiar. For just a small investment in uniforms and instruments, all of the citizens' problems with their youth will be solved. After a stirring music number ('76 Trombones' for those keeping score at home), the good citizens of River City take up the cause and drum up (pun intended) money and support for the boys band. After all, Professor Hill will lead them to the promised land if they can just front the money for the trip.
Does any of that sound familiar in the context of the continued stadium debate?
A constantly shifting, hard to perceive, and difficult to define character named "Economic Impact" gets trotted out as a primary reason for public monies to be spent on private needs. The theory here is that Economic Impact will grow nearly limitlessly and spread his bounty all across a chosen city if we can just be bothered to gather some tax dollars and serve them up to his good buddy, Professional Sports.
Study after study (more often than not performed and/or sponsored by rigorous, independant scientific institutions like visitors bureaus and chambers of commerce) is cited to show that Economic Impact is real, we just don't know how big he gets once his buddy gets fed. And, even though we don't know how big he gets, we know that it's big enough to justify the cost.
But, what if the connection between Professional Sports and Economic Impact isn't so clear?
According to an article in Milwaukee Magazine:"There's overwhelming evidence that there is no economic impact," declares professor Marc Levine, who runs the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Center for Economic Studies. "This conclusion has almost reached the truism of the Surgeon General's warning that cigarettes are hazardous to your health."So stadiums cause cancer? No, but in Baltimore, Levine claims, hotel usage has actually declined since the advent of the Camden Yards baseball stadium. Economists at Johns Hopkins University estimate that Camden Yards generates about $3 million annually in economic benefits but costs Maryland taxpayers $14 million a year.
But hey, what do those cheese heads in Wisconsin know anyway, right? Let's ask the good folks at the Independent Budget Office of New York City, an agency that "provides nonpartisan analysis to both elected officials and the public on fiscal and budgetary issues facing the city":The primary reason for the additional economic and fiscal activity resulting from new baseball stadiums stems from teams making more money from higher prices and greater fan attendance not from economic development surrounding stadiums.
Ahh, who cares what people in New York think, anyway? After all, they cheer for the Yankees! DC is going to build a stadium for the Nationals (lamest name ever?). DC is also swimming with economists and budget analysts. They must have figured this issue out. Let me see what the Cato Institute had to say in their October, 2004 report titled Caught Stealing; Debunking the Case for DC Baseball (PDF):Our conclustion, and that of nearly all academic economists studying this issue, is that professional sports generally have little, if any, positive effect on a city's economy. The net economic impact of professional sports in Washington, DC, and the other 36 cities that hosted professional sports teams over nearly 30 years, was a reduction in real per-capita income over the entire metropolitan area....
DC policy makers should not be mesmerized by faulty impact studies that claim a baseball team and a new stadium can be an engine of economic growth.
If you're truly interested in getting a new stadium built, let's at least be honest about the economics of the situation. Spending public money on a stadium is just that: spending public money. It's not an investment of public money. It is money that once spent, cannot be spent again.
Once you remove the bogus investment variable from the equation of spending public money on a professional sports stadium, the equation gets much easier to solve. It simply becomes a matter of priorites.
Do you want to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a stadium that will be out-of-date in less than thirty years or would that money be better spent on libraries, public hunting lands, health care, transit systems, bridge repair, parks, and the like?
All of this isn't to say that a city, county, or state shouldn't spend public money to build a professional sports stadium. What it does say is that if you choose to spend public money in that fashion, you are placing a value on professional sports that places them above all of the other programs and whatnot that public money usually funds and you should be open about that fact. In addition, you should be prepared for others to disagree with how you'd like to spend taxpayer dollars. That's all part of the messy process by which the public budget sausage is made.
So, shun Harold Hill and his fancy song and dance number filled with big numbers and pie-in-the-sky projections. Ignore the Music Man and pay attention to the facts.
This article originally appeared on the now defunct TwinsTerritory.com website.