The Golden Life

Back when Benjamin Franklin was inventing electricity, and the French were eating cake, I had a job selling memberships at the Golden Life Family Fitness Center, a health club in Austin.

Today we call them gyms. But health clubs then had more than gyms do now. The one I worked at had a swimming pool, and racquetball courts. A steam room, and a Jacuzzi, and a nursery, for daycare. There were locker rooms, where upscale and diehard members could rent lockers into perpetuity, and other lockers for daily use that we’d threaten to cut the locks off of every Friday. The exercise area had circuit machines and an iron gym in the back for the serious meatheads.

We also had itinerant personal trainers, who would dabble in the dark arts of injectable steroids and dubious dietary supplements. It was mostly the salesmen who would use the steroids. Coaches, we called the salesmen. I remember walking in on our general manager getting a shot in his gluteus maximus one time.

Lance Armstrong was a member at the health club where I worked. He was eighteen or so then, Texas State Champ, and super driven and intense. I wrote an upper body workout routine for him. He wouldn’t do lower body exercises during the racing season, but he’d finish his upper body routine and then jump on the Lifecycle for another couple of hours.

I asked Lance one time which exercise was most useful to him in his cycling, and he said that the seated dumbbell curls, with your elbow inside your knee, helped him throw the handlebars back and forth in the sprints. Later in his life, he wrote in his book that cancer made him lose the upper body mass, and that the weight loss made him a better climber.

Golden Life was part of a chain of health clubs in Austin. A by-product of baby boom demographics, health clubs were a growth industry and Golden Life opened more than one new health club while I was there. All the coaches loved new health clubs, because new health clubs came with pre-sales. Pre-sales is what we called selling memberships to health clubs that weren’t built yet. You’d think that would be hard, but it wasn’t. Because we got to build the health club there in the prospective members’ imagination.

Visualization was a valuable sales technique for us coaches. Picture how good you’ll look after you’ve been working out for a year, we’d say. Imagine yourself out there on the machines, lifting weights. Feeling strong. Chicks will dig you. Assholes won’t confront you in bars. Imagine yourself in control of your life.

We’d have blueprints, and elevations, of the clubs that hadn’t been built yet. Imagine how good that pool will feel after you’ve been lifting weights for an hour, we’d say. Picture it.

An imaginary health club was lots better than a real health club, because there was nothing wrong with a health club that hadn’t been built yet. The carpet wasn’t stained, and the plaster wasn’t cracked, and the locker room didn’t smell like a locker room, yet. The water is always crystal clear in a pool that hasn’t been filled yet. The collection agency hasn’t started calling looking for the monthly dues.

Likewise, there’s nothing wrong with the rosy future the ballpark proponents have advanced. The ballpark hasn’t been mired in the inescapable traffic snarls. Surly drunks haven’t begun pitching cups of beer down toward the box seats when the home team has gone 0 for 3 for seven innings in a row in each of the last twelve home games. And the promised related economic development hasn’t failed to materialize yet.

That’s why I think it’s really important to understand the path to success that the ballpark is promising us. How, exactly, is a downtown ballpark going to launch economic development in El Paso?

Marketers like to talk about a product’s Unique Sales Proposition. Having a Triple A ball club makes us one of thirty cities in the United States. That’s hardly unique.

Amenities like ballparks don’t persuade companies to open plants, or headquarters, in cities like El Paso. That’s not how business works. Companies work to maximize profits. We’re not competing with Tucson, or Albuquerque, for the next Dell or Microsoft or Google headquarters. The elite companies that are fighting for the best qualified employees are looking at cities like Austin and Seattle, and a Triple A ball team won’t push us over that hump. Toyota, however, doesn’t care if the assembly line factory floor workers have entertainment options after they punch out. They’re concerned with things like tax rates and utility and transportation costs. No one has ever said, I would be glad to move my company to El Paso if only you had a Triple A ball team.

Verde didn’t dump El Paso because there were no entertainment options here. They left because they weren’t selling any real estate. Did Western Refining move their management team to Phoenix because they couldn’t attract a talented workforce to El Paso? Is a Triple A baseball team going to make a difference?

I wonder how many of these rabid ballpark advocates have ever been to a minor league game. Even major league games are extended periods of ennui, tedious duels between pitchers and batters that are best understood in slo-mo instant replay.

And if the team continues the lackluster performance endemic to the Padres organization? The team we had to buy before anyone else did is last in the Pacific Coast League, and the San Diego Padres are next to last in the National League West. The San Antonio Missions, El Paso’s AA counterpart, are last in the Texas League South division. Will El Paso start rooting for the visitors?

I think that the lines of causality get blurred sometimes. The City reasoned, I imagine, that because rich cities have ballparks, that if we build a ballpark, we’ll become a rich city. They are ignoring the geographic reality that El Paso is on the border of a country with a marginally dysfunctional economy, with rafts of people for whom a minimum wage job in the United States is an order of magnitude improvement. There’s no sticking your thumb in that dyke. Legal immigration and the natural rate of population increase are enough to suppress the average income in El Paso for the foreseeable future. El Paso will be poor as long as Mexico is a poor country, and Juarez is a poor city.

I’ve yet to see a cogent argument that explains how the proposed downtown ballpark will do anything but shift El Paso’s entertainment dollars from one pocket to another, even if the project is a rousing success. No one has explained the magical alchemy that creates wealth by transferring suburban sales to downtown, or tax dollars to private developers.

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