When I’m asked what I think is the worst sports subsidy deal in history, and I’m asked that a lot, my go-to response is that every unhappy stadium deal is unhappy in its own way. But when pressed to pick a few for the all-time Hall of Shame, I’ll occasionally find room for the Columbus Blue Jackets arena bailout, if only because it turned a model of private arena financing into a massive public subsidy just because the team owners whined that they weren’t making enough money. And then the city of Columbus agreed to give Nationwide Insurance, which put up the money for the original private arena construction, $62 million in added tax money when it turned out casino tax revenues weren’t going to cover the original deal.
If you see this headed toward “more good money thrown after bad,” you’re way ahead of me. Take it away, Columbus Dispatch:
Okay, so maybe the Dispatch got so excited it couldn’t remember how verbs work. The point is, as the paper discussed in an accompanying story with a more grammatical headline, the 20-year-old arena needs not just a new roof, but “$94.4 million in capital-improvement expenses over the next five years.”
The good news is that arena authority director Don Brown says the general public won’t pay for the upgrade costs, because it has a repair fund already set aside, funded by “casino tax and admissions tax proceeds.” The less good news is that these taxes would otherwise go into the general fund if they weren’t being siphoned off for the arena fund; the even less good news is that thanks to casino and admissions tax shortfalls in recent years, the repair fund currently just has $454,000 left in it, plus a $2.4 million reserve fund, which is a lot less than $94.4 million.
The Dispatch article goes on to say that the Blue Jackets and their partners in operating the arena — Nationwide and Ohio State University — will be on the hook for arena upgrade costs, but also that the team’s lease requires that the building be kept in “first class” condition, which seems likely to be a point of contention in any disputes over where to come up with $90 million. Among the items that the arena authority cited the hockey team as wanting to have improved:
The locker room for Blue Jackets players is “reasonably well-appointed but is not as glamorous as NHL home locker rooms in newer facilities,” and could use a “thorough” upgrade. The player lounge and training areas are well-maintained “but not impressive,” and the players’ family lounge “does not present an NHL-level image.”
Well, we certainly can’t have that! What will the neighbors say?
There’s a lot of confusing language in the arena operating arrangement — the public arena authority is part of the management group, but isn’t responsible for upgrade cash unless OSU backs out — but given that we’ve already seen Columbus bail out the private parties for no good reason other than that they asked for it, it’s hard to rule out anything. The main takeaway here is that the Blue Jackets are publicly seeking $94 million to replace their roof and bling up their locker rooms, which is always a sign that taxpayers should hold onto their wallets.