“Throw a Billion Dollars from the Helicopter”

Here’s a scathing article from Reason.com about cities building stadiums.

Throw a Billion Dollars from the Helicopter is a new documentary about the wildly successful (and incredibly stupid) 2016 ballot initiative led by Jeff Williams, the mayor of Arlington, Texas, to throw $500 million in subsidies at a new ballpark for the Texas Rangers. If you care at all about sports, you’ll want to stream this movie, at the risk of killing whatever residual pleasure you might still get from watching baseball. And if you care about tax policy, crony capitalism, and good governance, you’ll want to watch it too, even though—spoiler alert—the ragtag bunch of ex–Tea Party renegades opposed to an indefensible giveaway got bowled over like Ray Fosse trying to protect the plate against Pete Rose at the 1970 All-Star Game.

. . .

[Arlington Mayor Jeff] Williams expertly works the levers of local boosterism, and [Director Michael] Bertin relishes showing the mayor and other stadium supporters invoking the phrase “world-class city” over and over again. The new ballpark will feature a retractable roof! It will be not just a stadium but a family “destination” with bars, restaurants, and concert venues! All of which will be “world class” and make Arlington a “world-class city”! Smaller cities—Arlington has about 400,000 residents and is part of the Dallas-Forth Worth metro area—often have inferiority complexes, and sports leagues and national chains know how to take advantage of that when looking for sweetheart subsidy deals.

That sounds incredibly familiar. Sort of like “We deserve it”.

Opposing the stadium is group called Citizens for a Better Arlington, a handful of folks left over from the Tea Party movement. They come across as an amiable group of people who don’t want the city to issue $500 million in bonds to cover half the cost of the park, especially since the old one was opened relatively recently (in 1994) and remains popular with fans. The bonds would be paid off by continuing a half-cent sales tax put in place to cover the debt incurred on the Cowboys’ deal, plus a series of hospitality taxes on rental cars, hotel rooms, stadium parking, and tickets. It’s a classic David-and-Goliath story, with the stadium backers funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars into the campaign while opponents scrape together loose change to cover the cost of yard signs and Xeroxed factsheets.

The second storyline deals with the phoney-baloney economic analysis that gets mustered up every time a team owner and pliant politicians want to sell a stadium to wary taxpayers. The Stanford economist Roger Noll compares stadiums to pyramids in ancient Egypt, structures built to honor dead pharaohs but paid for by the sweat and toil of living, breathing people. Noll and others point out that entertainment spending is generally a fixed pie and that local residents substitute one option for another. Teams thus don’t create new spending; they take it from other businesses, most of whom are actually paying property and other taxes. Bertin drives home the fact that most stadium boosters talk about the “economic impact” of having a team, not the actual economic benefits. Invariably, when you factor in the costs of building and financing a stadium and all the extra giveaways to team owners (who keep most or all revenue from parking, concessions, and the like), stadium projects are municipal money pits.

Remember when they pitched the ballpark to us? It’s deja vu all over again.

Keep you head up, because the arena and the soccer stadium are coming at us like Nolan Ryan fastballs, if I can mix my sports metaphors.

Here’s the trailer for “Throw a Billion Dollars from the Helicopter”. The documentary is available for rent from Vimeo.

Throw A Billion Dollars From The Helicopter from Michael Bertin on Vimeo.

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