Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Sulphur Dell may be the dream, but economic development is an illusion

There is consensus between the professional researchers who study pro sports venues and economic development: there is no proven connection between the two. The pros acknowledge the facts. The costs of publicly subsidized stadiums usually offset or counteract any benefits. Studies show no evidence of positive effects when comparing metro areas with pro sports teams to those without teams. There is no connection to greater employment. Likewise, there is no observable link to increases in income levels. In some cases the value of real estate in public parks rises faster than that under stadiums.

So, support a new ballpark if you want one, but please do not spread the malarky that sports venues are economic boons to the cities that subsidize them.

Usually, when someone tells you that investing public dollars in building a ballpark for a pro team constitutes a "huge" benefit because they create economic development and private investment, they cannot back up those claims with independent data from reliable research. They will spout potentialities incessantly to a beguiled and bewildered news media, but they cannot back up their talking points with evidence or examples.

Baltimore: no neighborhood rebirth
Camden Yards, considered the prototype for all contemporary urban and urban-like ballparks, has had a long track record (almost 25 years) by which to judge whether the neighborhoods around it have enjoyed windfalls. In Baltimore, the ballpark has not been the boon it was predicted to be:

Camden Yards also launched a trend of placing stadiums in the middle of cities in an attempt at redevelopment, as public officials nationwide mistook its appeal as a sports venue for success as a development catalyst, said Tim Chapin, chairman of the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at Florida State University. In fact, he said, the widespread belief that Camden Yards launched a rebirth in downtown Baltimore isn’t true.

“While it expanded the tourist bubble to the west, it didn’t wholesale save the downtown economy or prop up very poor neighborhoods not too far from downtown,” Chapin said.

If the iconic ballpark of the last quarter century did not have a dramatic effect in empowering poor communities in Baltimore, it is reasonable to conclude that a ballpark built in 2014 in Nashville will not have the economic impact the wishful thinkers at Friends of Sulphur Dell intend for us to believe.

On the contrary, if Baltimore's tourism bubble expanded, it is fair to assume that Sulphur Dell could have an impact more in line with that of the new Music City Convention Center. It might be more of a revenue source for Nashville's fat tourism industry than for the neighborhoods of Salemtown, Germantown, Buena Vista and Hope Gardens.

Atlanta: no urban renewal
Baltimore is not the only place where questions are recently raised about the economic fables of sports venues. Atlanta's continuing problems with its sports teams and their facilities have observers wondering about the difference they really made:

A new sports venue presents no guarantee of urban renewal. If you doubt that, look at the scarred neighborhoods surrounding the Georgia Dome and Turner Field. That’s why the contention by [Mayor Kasim] Reed…that a new Falcons stadium will turn around the area comes off as such bunk. If the city really wanted to commit millions to develop new businesses and mixed-use development around the Georgia Dome, it could have done so without a new football stadium.

Likewise, if Nashville cared about its northern neighborhoods, it would spend more money on them with or without the Nashville Sounds ball club and mixed-use developments. It is bad faith to preach economic investment made by local government under the auspices of helping neighborhoods when the benefits disproportionately go to wealthy developers and ball clubs.

This is not to say that there is absolutely no economic potential for Sulphur Dell. One observer concedes that major league ballparks cannot be justified on the basis of hypothetical economic benefits, but he does maintain that small ballparks could economically justify their existence:

Certain types of teams and facilities can produce gains in regional income (albeit small ones: about $67 to about $117 per capita). This contradicts “the vast majority of academic research” on big-league sports, which “has found nonpositive effects on income...employment...sales tax revenues...and spending.”

You’ll pretty much have to take Agha’s word that her conclusions are solid .... But Agha, whose data set included “all of the teams that played minor league baseball between 1980 and 2006,” offers some plausible reasons smaller franchises might confer benefits larger ones do not.

For instance: “Teams can theoretically...generate substantial new spending by out-of-area residents or discourage residents from spending outside the local economy. Both of these are more likely to occur in geographically isolated metro areas.” (That’s bad news for Richmond, which lies just a short hop from Charlottesville, Hampton Roads, D.C. and Baltimore.)

What also might help? Using the stadium for unrelated events, such as marching-band competitions. Coordinated marketing by diverse civic groups. And team stability, which can build community identification.

Assuming Nashville is isolated from other Metro areas enough to keep private revenues here, then we can justify the building of a minor league park like Sulphur Dell at private expense. However, even the modest benefits rising from minor league venues do not justify the investment of public tax dollars in private enterprise. Again, there is practically no deviation by pro sports researchers on that point.

So, just because other cities decide to jump off that cliff, should Nashville? I would say: not without contractual commitments from developers and club owners.

The bottom line is that ballparks are more likely to hurt, rather than help local economies. This is widely acknowledged by the researchers who do not have a dog in the fight even as ballpark boosters repeat "economic investment" like a mantra; as if saying it over and over again makes it true.

Just try and talk to boosters about the costs of tax increment financing for sports teams. They would rather don t-shirts and wax romantic about a sport they may or may not even like. One ballpark bill sponsor thought so much of Sulphur Dell's baseball history that she misspelled its name a couple of times in her press release. It is all window dressing for the transfer of money from public coffers to private wallets with meager returns for the common good.

So don't support a new Sulphur Dell because you assume it will be a catalyst of growth in North Nashville. There is no hard evidence that it can do that.

Support it for other reasons: you believe that anything is better than parking lots, you want to walk to baseball games, history matters more to you than the money, you consider it an expression of urbanism and a chance to foster smart growth and complete streets, or whatever else matters to you. But don't perpetuate the urban myths of growth, not unless you can convince the Metro Council to add regulations and restrictions on developers and club ownership that guarantee intentional and planned economic investment in public, neighborhood infrastructure.

We need a guaranteed return on tax dollar investments given the high risk of subsidizing ballparks. Misplacing faith in private developers is no guarantee.

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