The half-billion-dollar "rimshot!" that wasn't

Kari Chisholm FacebookTwitterWebsite

'Twasn't so long ago that Portlanders (and BlueOregon readers) were debating the merits of bringing major league baseball to town -- and, especially, the merits of subsidizing a major league baseball stadium.

While there are plenty of folks who continue to argue for attracting a team, the ardor for building a stadium with taxpayer dollars seems to have cooled. Back then, we lost the Expos to Washington DC - who were promptly renamed the Nationals (or Nats, for short.)

DcstadiumBrookings Institution fellow (and sports columnist) Gregg Easterbrook has a great bit at about the financial disaster that the Nats stadium has become. I'll excerpt it here because it's just one item tucked into the world's longest weekly column about pro football:

Recently the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission unveiled the design of the Washington Nationals' new baseball park, and the announcement made yours truly glad he does not reside in the District of Columbia. Local taxpayers will be on the hook for $535 million in bonds to support this potential white elephant. Not only is there a strong chance the stadium will flop in the marketplace -- more on that in a moment -- the price tag seems likely to include substantial graft.

Consider that Citizens Bank Park in nearby Philadelphia, the Phillies' new home, opened in 2004 and was built for $346 million, only $174 million of it foisted upon local taxpayers. Citizens Bank Park is larger than the planned Washington Nationals park, sits on similar downtown land bought at similar downtown prices, yet cost taxpayers only about a third as much. Recently opened Gillette Field, financed mainly at Patriots owner Robert Kraft's expense, came in at $325 million and is substantially larger than the planned Nats ballpark. The just-announced new Yankee Stadium is projected to cost $800 million, but will be larger than the Washington ballpark and will sit on 22 acres of the most expensive land in North America. Yet taxpayers are contributing about $300 million to the Yankee Stadium project, less than the bill to be handed to taxpayers for the smaller Washington facility.

All yours, D.C. baseball fans, for $535 million -- and don't forget the cost overruns!

It's easy to be careless with other people's money, especially with the money of taxpayers, who cannot demand refunds or sue for breach of contract. Gillette Field was built using private funds under market discipline; the Washington stadium will be built at taxpayer expense with no fiscal discipline. Surely that's a reason the price is so high. But another reason may be that some portion of the price is likely to be stolen by cronies of the District's top-heavy, inept government. Indeed, the D.C. Council seemed determined to push the stadium cost well above the price of comparable facilities, in order to assure there was plenty in the pot to steal.

George W. Bush, the most baseball-obsessed president since William Howard Taft, has allowed this tax-subsidized pocket-picking directly under his nose, while making no attempt to pressure his pals in the corporate suites of Major League Baseball into building the stadium the free-market way. Maybe the naming rights should be sold to Halliburton. ... Welcome to Halliburton Field, where hot dogs are $6,000 and all overhead costs are billed to the defense budget.

Why might the Washington ballpark lack customers? First, it's situated at one of the worst traffic choke points in the nation's capital -- and that's now, before stadium traffic. Many stadia are hard to get in and out of. Experience shows that customers will bear traffic gridlock for football games, which happen only a few times a year, but won't frequent the much-more-regular MLB games unless access is convenient, and the Nats' field is being plunked down at one of the hardest-to-reach spots on the East Coast.

Second, the high $535 million price will include a ridiculously low 1,225 parking places, some of which will be reserved for D.C. government officials. That's one parking space for every 34 seats. The new Yankee Stadium will have decked garages with 10,000 parking spaces, one space for every 5.3 seats. The Arizona Cardinals' new stadium, rising in Glendale, Ariz., will have 14,000 dedicated parking spaces for 63,000 seats, one space per 4.5 seats.

No matter how good the Nats might be, suburbanites, who are the core demographic for all professional sports, might come to the new ballpark once, discover traffic is backed up and there's nowhere to park, and never return. When the ballpark project zeroes out the D.C. government's bond rating, please, congressional committees, don't say you weren't warned.

Bonus: The Nats' new facility will "strive to be the most environmentally friendly MLB ballpark ever," the D.C. sports authority declared, though no details were given. How very Washington -- dramatic announcement, no specifics. It is in fact possible to build environmentally responsible sports facilities: Gillette Field, for instance, has its own wastewater processing plant. Tuesday Morning Quarterback suspects the primary environmentally friendly feature of the new Nats ballpark will be that no spectators come, thus conserving gasoline.

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    I have to say that DC deserves the problems they are getting from this project. Maybe the writer should have also reminded his readers that DC made some very strong stipulations including refusing to put the financing into place before the team was rewarded.

    We all pretty much knew before the decision that DC had the lock on the team due to favortism and the old boy network led by Bud.

    If there is a "sports god" he (or she for that matter) has brought the ultimate revenge down on these bumbling idiots.

  • Gil Johnson (unverified)

    I thought the Yankee Stadium boondoggle wasn't yet a done deal. Certainly, most New Yorkers aren't all that enthusiastice about it.

  • Ross Williams (unverified)

    Easterbrook is a typical football fan. I don't think investments in sports stadiums ever make much sense but all the prattle about the "market" and parking spaces just misses the point. There is no "market" in sports, the stadiums are essentially big TV studios. And having one in your town is an amenity. Its like talking about marble counter tops and jacuzzi tubs in terms of what they add to the market value of a house. They never pay for themselves. Neither do sports stadiums.

    And to be clear, George Bush wasn't hired as Texas Ranger's President because of his baseball or business expertise. He was hired to use his family's political connections to get a new stadium for the Rangers. And he was very generously rewarded for that successful effort. The fact that Easterbrook apparently is unaware of that makes it even clearer how he is long on attitude and short on facts. A typical sports writer.

  • Tim Mooney (unverified)

    Speaking here from the District... a couple of thoughts.

    First, we as residents are used to being screwed (I'd call my Congresswoman and Senator, but I was just informed they have no actual power).

    Second, the precedent here in DC is the Verizon (formerly MCI) Center. I'm not aware of cost overruns or any other issues regarding financing with that particular beastie, but I do know that it has served as the lynchpin to a major revivial in the Chinatown/Gallery Place area of DC. Before the stadium, it was run down and economically one of the most downtrodden parts of the District. Now, it's vibrant and one of the hottest areas in town. I think that, more than anything else, was the example used by the DC Council to shoehorn this deal through... build a stadium, revitalize an area.

    Now, people in Portland recognize a very different reality... stadium revitalizations do not necessarily bring automatic dividends. PGE Park, anyone? How's that Rose Quarter coming along? Yeah, exactly... it's a crap shoot, and maybe the Chinatown experience was more luck than anything else.

    Frankly, I'm rather divided on the subject... the Nats stadium financing is a disaster, however, if that ends up making the kinds of positive changes to SW DC that we have experienced around Chinatown, it might be a wise investment.

  • Frank D. Russo (unverified)

    Hi there, Kari. We've had a disaster here in Oakland with the deal our electeds agreed to in order to get the Oakland Raisers back. We are $250 billion dollars out of public money that cold be used for many other needs based on this deal that was consummated in 1995.

    I killed the first one in 1991 that these same elected passed that would have required the city of Oakland and the County of Alameda to pay for any seats not sold out in the ten years of the deal. We qualified the first and only referendum in the city's history to squahs that one.

    Don't know why sports teams should be treated differently from any other business.


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    <h2>Nice to see you 'round here, Frank. Everyone else -- y'all should check out BlueOregon's cousin down south - the California Progress Report. Good stuff.</h2>

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