I’m sure they mean well, those private investors and city politicians who want to build a baseball stadium in downtown El Paso. They have, I’m sure, only the best interests of the city at heart, and no secret agendas or ulterior motives. Or at least they have plausible and convincing rationales, of which they themselves are convinced.
Say what you want about our current crop of elected officials. At least they’re relatively honest, which makes them sterling for El Paso. They might be out of touch, or delusional, or misguided, but at least they’re not blatantly trading contracts for cash. At city council meetings they make cogent comments, and their lines of reasoning are intelligible and rational and consistent. Even when they’re wrong.
So if they want to raze city hall to build a baseball stadium, I’m sure they have their reasons, and I’m sure that they’re reasonable reasons, even if they are, at the moment, relatively opaque for those of us outside of the inner circle.
Economic development is the cause célèbre. A baseball stadium is supposed to be the silver bullet that creates the critical mass for sustainable economic development in downtown El Paso. A Triple A team will give El Paso the cachet required to attract clean industry, and high-paying jobs, and an educated workforce. A Triple A team is a required step to make El Paso the next great American city.
Of course, that’s a ludicrous proposition. Even if a Triple A team is required, it’s not sufficient. Even the sexiest baseball stadium appeals only to a narrow slice of humanity. A baseball stadium is, at best, only a piece of the puzzle. If we approve a baseball stadium, the next elected advocates for economic development will point out, (accurately, I’m afraid) that our baseball stadium investment will be wasted if we don’t approve other infrastructure projects to complement the stadium and Triple A team. So for City Council to present the cost of the stadium and the relocation of City Hall as our only expenses is either naïve or disingenuous.
Economic development is a dog-whistle code word for class warfare. And not the good kind of class warfare, where the poor eat the rich. When the Paso del Norte Group proposed seizing downtown properties to build a lifestyle center, what they were really suggesting was replacing the poor people downtown with people that weren’t so poor. Not by enriching the people that were already there, but by replacing them. And not incrementally, over generations. But suddenly, over a few years.
Economic development people don’t like poor people, because poor people don’t spend enough money to sustain economic development, because they don’t have enough money. Sustainable economic development requires discretionary disposable income. The extra money buys things with bigger margins, and that money flies around, from purchase to purchase, faster, generating more jobs, and income, and more economic development.
Poor people don’t go to restaurants, or buy jewelry and electronics, or other high-margin, high-ticket items. They sit on their porches and try to save money to put their kids through college. That’s a different, longer term, kind of economic development.
I’m sure part of the reason that all the parties involved want to build a stadium is the allure of spending someone else’s money. The private investors get to leverage their capital with public funds, and the elected officials – well, it was never their money to begin with. But they’re leveraging public funds with private monies and expertise.
In the words of Nobel laureate Milton Friedman, “Very few people spend other people’s money as carefully as they spend their own.”
Maybe I’d feel better about the stadium if our elected officials ponied up some significant nominal amount – say, fifty grand—of their own money as a guarantee if the stadium doesn’t work out. Each. Just to keep them honest and involved and the process interesting. Of course, three hundred thousand dollars, (fifty thousand dollars each from the six representatives who voted for it) wouldn’t make a dent in the cost of the stadium to the city. But at least it would show that the city council had the courage of their convictions. Gambling with other peoples’ money is too easy.