Worcester proposes $100m-plus in subsidies to steal PawSox from Rhode Island, now what?

Earlier this summer, the state of Rhode Island rejected a request by the owners of the Pawtucket Red Sox to fund a new stadium in Pawtucket. On Friday, the team owners announced their decision: They will be moving the franchise to Worcester, which will build a new stadium with public funds that the team will be repaying with rent and other team-related revenues, in a major win for the Massachusetts city.

All of that previous paragraph was reported in various media over the weekend. Virtually none of it is 100% true.

Let’s start where we left off: With the June legislative vote of the Rhode Island legislature, which actually approved $38 million in state and city subsidies toward a new Pawtucket stadium. What it didn’t do was promise that the state would cover any shortfalls in tax revenues set to pay off the stadium bonds, which could have raised interest rates to the point that the PawSox owners got snippy about it.

At the time — really, at just about any time in the last three years — Worcester was out there as a potential relocation threat, but nothing more specific than that, as nobody had publicly talked about how to pay for building a stadium there. That’s what changed on Friday, as the PawSox owners and the city of Worcester signed a “letter of intent” to build a $90 million, 10,000-seat stadium as part of a $200 million mixed-use development with hotels, apartments, and retail.

As for how it would all be paid for, here’s what the news media — at least those not too busy declaring the deal an “economic grand slam” for Worcester — is reporting it:

  • The city would borrow $100.8 million, while the team owners would kick in $6 million in cash. Of the city’s portion, rent payment from the team will pay for $30.2 million over 30 years — it’s not clear from the reporting if that’s $30.2 million in total rent payments, or enough rent payments to pay off $30.2 million in borrowing, which would be a whole lot more. (Just like $30.2 million in mortgage payments wouldn’t be enough to pay of a $30.2 million house, unless you got a no-interest loan.)
  • Assuming it’s the latter, that still leaves $70.6 million to be repaid by new tax revenues from the development — in other words, our old friend tax increment financing. But this is a TIF with a twist: Instead of just kicking back tax revenue from the stadium itself, the project would come packaged with that pile of hotels and housing and retail space — all of which would pay property (and other? reporting is unclear) taxes not to the city treasury to pay for services for all this new development, but toward the stadium’s construction debt.
  • The state would also kick in $35 million for a parking garage and “unspecified infrastructure improvements,” according to the Worcester Business Journal.

That brings the total public subsidy to at least $105.6 million, and possibly closer to $120 million if those rent payments are actual dollar amounts on the team owners’ checks. Either way, I’m pretty sure that this would be easily the largest public subsidy for any minor-league baseball team ever, and would blow away Rhode Island’s offer, even if that state hadn’t capped its debt responsibilities in the final bill.

So Worcester has just bought itself a really expensive Triple-A team, right? Not quite yet: The city council still needs to sign off on the whole mess, and while Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker is in favor of the state garage money, it may yet require state legislative approval as well. So notwithstanding all the talk about stadium construction starting next July, there may be some bothersome hearings and votes and such yet to go.

Officials in Rhode Island, and Pawtucket, meanwhile, are understandably steamed that after approving what they thought was a pretty good offer in June, the next thing they heard from PawSox officials was a letter on Friday saying, “Sorry, we found someone with more money.” PawSox CEO Larry Lucchino, meanwhile, put the blame squarely on Rhode Island for not scurrying to cough up more money more promptly, as it is the state’s job to do:

“As I said in our meeting on Monday, Aug. 6, ‘Where have you been?’ That’s not directed at your personally, but at all of those involved in the process.”

“The state’s delays cost Pawtucket dearly,” the baseball executive said.

In the end — if this is the end, which it probably isn’t yet — it’s an indication of how negotiating with minor-league team owners is exponentially harder than doing so with major-league ones, because there’s a near-infinite number of equally middling-sized cities to move to. Pawtucket’s best hope was that no cities within easy reach of Boston (where the Red Sox want their top minor-league teams close by) would take the bait and deliver a suitcase full of cash to Lucchino’s door; instead, Worcester came up with the fattest suitcase in history. Score one against Roger Noll’s theory that the tide is turning.

Friday roundup: Trump tariff construction cost hikes, Beckham lawsuit tossed, Elon Musk inserts himself into headlines yet again

Lots of news to report this week, and that’s even without items that I can’t read because of Tronc Troncing:

Austin approves final MLS stadium talks, Columbus Crew to move sometime or another probably maybe

Well, that was anticlimactic: After several weeks in which the Austin city council put off a decision on providing more than $100 million in property tax breaks for a new soccer stadium to lure the Columbus Crew to town, with four members in favor, four opposed, and three swing votes, yesterday the swing votes all swung toward “yes” and the measure passed 7-4. The Crew will now relocate to Texas at some point in the next year or two or three, unless the lease talks that were authorized yesterday collapse (unlikely at this stage), or Columbus wins its Modell Law suit to block the team from moving (who knows), or Crew owner Anthony Precourt changes his mind for some reason (also unlikely given how happy his press statement sounded after the vote, but also who knows).

The council also voted on 19 amendments to the stadium bill: I can’t find full coverage of what passed and what didn’t — it’s not helping that there’s no WiFi on this train even though there was supposed to be, clearly they need to tear down the train system and build a new one — but the Austin American-Statesman does report that the one to double the team’s rent to just under $1 million a year was defeated after Mayor Steve Adler warned that this was “the best deal of its kind in the country” and warned that asking for any concessions could kill it. I would beg to differ — Orlando S.C.‘s stadium deal was a fair bit better, for one. The Austin deal isn’t horrible as these things go, but that doesn’t make it reasonable either, but rather in that broad swath of “at least we didn’t get screwed over as bad as some other cities” that makes up most stadium deals. But then, soccer fans are used to celebrating pyrrhic victories.

Are sports leagues trolling Arizona media by refusing to release full economic impact studies?

Emerging briefly from my travel-imposed radio silence to note that Arizona tourism officials are once again talking up how sports is a mammoth contributor to the state’s economy, to the tune of $1.3 billion over the last three years. That’s according to figures come up with by the Arizona State University’s W.P. Carey School of Business, and since they go against pretty much every other study conducted of sports economics ever — which conclude that most sports spending just displaces other spending, whether it’s by locals or tourists — I heartily pooh-poohed the latest of those studies when it came out last month, noting that a previous enthusiastic study of spring-training impact in Florida turned out not even to have been conducted by an economist.

After I wrote that, I got a very friendly under the circumstances email from one of the Arizona State economists, who assured me that the people behind the report had degrees and everything. He also indicated that the study had tried to avoid crediting sports with economic activity from visitors who would have come to Arizona anyway by asking survey respondents, “How strong a factor was the 2018 Cactus League in your decision to visit Arizona?”

This was very interesting, I told my correspondent. Where could I find the complete study, so I can see the full methodology?

Sorry, I was told. These reports were commissioned by the sports leagues (MLB, the NFL, and NCAA), and they were only releasing summaries, not the full reports.

This, needless to say, is a problem: Without seeing the methodology, there’s no way to tell if these studies truly show something unprecedented is going on in Arizona, or if every other study is correct that one-time and seasonal sports events don’t have any measurable economic benefit. So instead we just have the sports leagues picking and choosing which numbers to put in their press releases, with no way to tell how those figures were generated.

And if the notion of sports leagues deliberately trolling the media with cherry-picked stats is bad enough, one has to ask: Why the hell are Arizona media letting themselves get trolled? Pretty much every news outlet in the state has been running these stories at face value, without ever noting that there’s no way to evaluate the claims. That’s a dereliction of duty way worse than anything the leagues (who only have obligation to profit, not to truth) or the economists (who are just doing what their clients ask of them, though I suppose they could always refuse to take on projects with secrecy clauses on the grounds of academic openness) are doing.

Anyway, sports leagues are devious and secretive and news outlets are lazy and eager to suck up to the sports industry that provides them with many of their dwindling number of readers. Glad to see nothing has changed in my absence, in other words.

Friday roundup: Delayed votes, poorly considered tributes, and a no-LeBron loan offer

Greetings from my undisclosed location! I have time for an abbreviated news roundup this week:

Programming note: Please nobody swindle any cities while I’m gone, thanks

I’m going to be traveling the next week and a half, so posts here may be lighter than usual. (Or may not be; I’m told they do have the internet where I’m going.) Please use the comments for this post as your open thread for anything that comes up that I don’t immediately address, and normal programming will resume on the 21st.

And now, to tide you over, here’s some abandoned Olympics facility porn, courtesy of USA Today. Enjoy.

Four Austin councilmembers seek to cut Crew subsidy by $37m

Four members of the Austin city council have proposed revised lease terms for a proposed MLS stadium for the relocated Columbus Crew, two days in advance of a council vote on the subject. The new terms:

• Raising the team’s rent from $412,500 a year for 20 years (present value: about $5 million) to $958,720 a year rising by 2% a year (present value: about $14 million).

• Annual payments equal to the rent, to go toward local school systems (present value: $14 million).

• Having team owner Anthony Precourt pay for the cost of a Capital Metro rail station, (estimated cost: $12 million).

• A $3 per ticket surcharge, of which one-third would go to various public needs (present value: depends on how many tickets are sold, but let’s guesstimate $200,000 a year, which would be worth a bit over $2 million total).

If I can do simple addition this early in the morning, that’s about $37 million worth of additional money that would be flowing from the soccer team owners to the public. That would still be significantly less than the more than $100 million in property taxes that the team is looking to dodge (again, in present value; the total nominal amount over 25 years is likely to be more than $250 million), but at least it would reduce the value of the tax break somewhat.

Unfortunately, if I’m also doing math right, those four councilmembers are a minority of the 11-member city council, so unless they can swing a couple more votes their way, this proposal isn’t going anywhere. We’ll find out tomorrow.

Mariners seeking $180m in public money to buy $501 toasters, less frumpy luxury suites

I was busy yesterday finishing up the transcription of my Nick Licata interview, but I don’t want to let this weekend’s actual news out of Seattle pass unnoticed, which is that Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat went through the list of “necessary improvements” that the Mariners are demanding taxpayers pay $180 million toward, and found this:

By way of example, one of them is a four-slice toaster for the M’s clubhouse that the consultant priced out at … $501.

It’s just one of thousands of items listed in the report. It’s obviously minor, compared to, say, the $24 million to fix the mammoth retractable roof. But it leapt out because $501 seems a mighty goosed-up price for a toaster.

The report is filled with eyebrow-raising prices. The total cost of new furniture for the park’s 60 luxury suites — also on the must-have fixes list — is $3 million. That works out to 50-grand worth of furniture for each suite. The added parking in the garage pencils out to nearly $100,000 per stall.

Here’s the report itself if you want to look through it. Aome of the items that jumped out to me were: replacing all the televisions every eight years, replacing all the ad signage inside and outside the stadium (ad signage whose revenue goes entirely to the Mariners owners, I believe), redoing the luxury seating so it’s no longer “dated,” adding a brewpub and and upper deck bar, and a whole lot of other things with alarmingly specific projected costs (repairs to the retractable roof, for instance, would cost $10,797,024 in 2026 but only $1,675,269 in 2027).

In other words, it looks like the consultants put together a wish list of things either other newer stadiums have — they say they visited San Francisco, Denver, Washington, and Pittsburgh “as a resource for developing the matrix” — or the Mariners owners had a particular jones for, and said right, that’s what’s needed. Which is an awfully funny definition of “need,” but then, the consultants here are B&D Venues and Populous, who are in the business of selling new stadiums and stadium upgrades to local governments. Hot tip for King County legislators: When your auto mechanic tells you you need $180 million in work on your car, at the very least get a second opinion.

FoS 20: Nick Licata on how to fight for fairer stadium deals

I’ve written at length about how if cities want to avoid getting screwed in stadium deals, they should look to Seattle. (That was pretty much exactly the headline, even.) That wasn’t always the case — the Mariners and Seahawks deals were as big giveaways to team owners as you could find in their era — but starting with the passage of Initiative 91 in 2006, Seattle has been at the forefront of demanding that team owners and stadium and arena developers show how any public money spent on sports venues will pay off for the public.

A large part of the credit for that goes to Nick Licata, who — first as a founder of Citizens for More Important Things, which helped pass I-91, and later as a member of the Seattle city council — helped push for sports projects to be evaluated not just on whether they’d make the team owners happy, but whether they’d be good public investments. Since leaving the council three years ago, Licata has been working with cities nationwide on implementing more just local policies, both via a new book and as chair of the progressive governance group Local Progress. Listen below as we discuss the relationship between good government and good citizen activism, and we totally fail to reminisce about that time we both testified before Congress together.

ND: Hi, and welcome to episode four of the Field of Schemes 20th anniversary interview series. Today’s guest is someone who — and this is the first guest I’m getting this to say about — I first met when we testified before Congress together: Nick Licata, who’s been one of the driving forces behind ensuring that in particular the city of Seattle, but also cities in general, get stadium and arena deals that are fair for the public. After serving as co-chair of the community group Citizens for More Important Things in the 1990s — one of the community groups with the best titles ever — Nick served 18 years on the Seattle City Council, including several years as council president, before retiring in 2015; and since has authored the book Becoming a Citizen Activist: Stories, Strategies and Advice for Changing Our World. Nick, it is an honor and a pleasure to have you here.

NL: Thank you very much for inviting me to talk to you.

ND: You and I have talked over the years about Seattle and stadium deals in general. But I don’t actually know the story of how Citizens For More Important Things got started, and how you got involved in that.

NL: Well, I had been a citizen activist; I was not a city council member at that time. And I’ve always been concerned about how public money is spent, which is a concern that cuts across the political spectrum. And I saw that we were talking about giving literally hundreds of millions of dollars to a private corporation, and a lot of people were on board because they ran a professional sports team — in that case it was the Mariners baseball team in Seattle. And, you know, I’ve gone to the baseball games as a spectator for a long time. I was in Little League, that kind of thing. But it just struck me as, quite honestly, unfair. Why are we giving so much money to what is a business?

And so I made a few phone calls, and I ran into someone I didn’t know really well but who’s active in the Democratic Party, and he was saying yeah, we’re going to put together a group. We talked about a title, and came up with Citizens for More Important Things. It’s funny, ’cause I was just with him yesterday, Chris Van Dyk. And Chris initially thought, well, we’ll just run a few ads and we’ll just see what happens. You know, try to slow this ball down. And things got away from it. The media, actually even the media that was critical, liked the idea of a debate. Community groups responded very well. And then of course the folks that were, I would say, hardcore baseball fans were upset that we’d even question not spending hundreds of millions of dollars to what they say would save the team. So we were all of a sudden thrust into the middle of this great debate.

ND: But people forget that, this was ’95, and everybody always talks about how the Mariners made the playoffs and everybody rallied around them. But there was actually a public vote in Seattle right as the Mariners were about to make the playoffs, or just made the playoffs, and public funding was voted down, right?

NL: First of all, the vote was so close that initially— because we have, even then, a lot of voting is done by by mail — we thought we had perhaps lost the vote. But it turns out we won; we found out a few days later. And then we had a governor at that time, very progressive governor, Mike Lowry, a good friend of mine. But like I said before, the blinders sort of get put on when you talk about sports economics. There were very strong progressive or at least liberal Democrats who were like, “Well, we still gotta save the team, or we still gotta keep it here.” And they would bolster those arguments by basically arguing it’s economic development, which never panned out.

So in any case, he called a special session, which is not all that common, and called the senate and the house together in Washington state. And they came up with a slightly different funding plan, so they could argue that it wasn’t exactly overturning what we had voted down. But in fact in spirit it certainly was. And they ended up giving roughly $500 million to the Mariners.

ND: When did you first run for council?

NL: I ran for council in ’97 and then my first term began in ’98. And I was there till the end of 2015.

ND: And was that a direct result of you having seen what had gone on with, not just the Mariners deal, obviously, but what you’d seen going on as a citizen activist?

NL: Sure. Before then I was very involved in a lot of local issues. Funny you should mention that I did go to Congress talking about professional funding of sports teams; the first time actually I was brought to Congress — and this is both times as not an elected official, just as a community activist — I was there to argue against what they called redlining, and actually help get the legislation passed requiring banks to show where they were making investments: the Community Reinvestment Act. It’s amazing that I had those two opportunities.

So I was working as, of all things, an insurance broker, because I took responsibilities — raising my kid, along with my wife. I was still very involved in stuff, primarily around trying to stop the nuclear weapons arms race and things of that sort, environmental issues. And I was enjoying that far more than being an insurance broker. So I finally just quit that and said, okay, I’m doing so much of this activism, I was sometimes barely in the office — they used to ask me, do you still work here? I was actually scheduled to be management, and I just didn’t want to do that. So I said, “I’ll just leave. You can have all my business,” which consisted mostly of artists. And there was an opening on the city council, and I decided I’m just going to go for it. I figured why not — this is what I’m doing anyhow. Maybe I can get paid for it!

And amazingly I won. Although I quite honestly for a while there didn’t think it was going to happen, given that at that time we had two major daily newspapers, and they both came out against me, as well as the mayor and the majority of the City Council, and on and on. But I had a large network of grassroots people that wasn’t created overnight. It was created over literally a decade or more of working a number of different issues.

ND: That’s interesting, because I think one of the arguments that a lot of politicians would make in terms of not just opposing sports stadium deals, but taking a stand on a lot of issues is it’ll be the nail in the coffin of your career. And here you were somebody who was coming from the outside to some degree and did not have endorsements, but you had a lot of support because of all the grassroots stuff you’d been doing.

NL: Yeah. Actually, that lesson to me — well, two things. One is since I didn’t expect to win, and I did — I mean I tried very hard; it wasn’t like I was sloughing off — once I got in I said, okay, I’m sure that that they will come after me next time and I’m not going to worry about it. Tthis is my advice to anyone in office: You can’t look behind your back all the time, wondering who you’re going to offend or whatever. All you have to do is explain why you’re doing something. You’d be amazed how many people respect why you’re doing something. I had a number of people who actually thought differently about my position on sports teams — although the majority were actually in favor of my position. But they said, you know, you explained it. You didn’t make it personal. I really tried to avoid attacking personalities, but just laid out how what they’re saying doesn’t pan out. I relied a lot on research; I always do all my own research and data. And I noticed if you talk just rationally and respectfully to people, even though they disagree with you, at least in my situation luckily, they sort of cut you a lot of slack. They say okay, at least I know where you’re coming from.

A lot of people said that. So I was very fortunate. I got elected to five terms!

ND: How involved were you with Initiative 91? This is obviously one of the big turning points in the Seattle sports industry, right?

NL: By that time I was already on the council, and I was not the face of the campaign by any means. But everybody who was at the core of putting it together were people who helped me get elected, who I was in touch with. So I worked with them, basically helping design it. Certainly I became a strong supporter early on. I’ve always been writing up op-eds; I probably wrote an op-ed or two on it. The media sometimes would label me as the creator or originator, which is not true. There were people who put a lot more time and energy into it than I did. But because I had such a track record, sometimes the media doesn’t dig deep enough and they just use the quickest thing possible.

But I would say that the unions played a very strong role — SEIU in particular. And to the extent that they did, it was recognizing that if we continue to go forward as we have in the past, we’re literally taking money away from more important things. Our infrastructure is falling apart. We know we need to improve community-police relationships. We need to basically do things to help folks — at that time, homelessness was not the kind of problem that is overwhelming us today, but still, affordable housing was starting to get tight. So there’s a number of ways that we can use public dollars to benefit the most people and that’s what I’ve always argued. I even argued, if you want to subsidize sports, then do it in a rational way.

In fact, that’s what it was all about: We will loan you money at the best rate possible — the rate that they charge for government bonds. But still, it’s a loan. We’ve got to get our money back.

ND: Right. And that was the pioneering thing about I-91 is that there had been referendums before that mostly tended to say, you need to have a public vote before you can have approval of any expense on stadiums over a certain amount. Which was helpful, especially if you were in a city where otherwise it tended to all get done behind closed doors and presented as a fait accompli and nobody ever got to vote on anything. But I-91 was very different in that it wasn’t that — it was based on, okay, anything that happens here, the public needs to get a return on their investment. Which was an idea that had been kicking around in stadium circles for a while, but nobody had ever actually put into legislation.

NL: I mean, it passed overwhelmingly. It was no contest. And again, I’ve encouraged other cities to look at that as a model too: Avoid falling into the trap of, are you for or against baseball, football, basketball, whatever. Are you for in favor of our team or not? Our response was always yeah, we’re in favor of them. But, you know, not to the point that we’re going to take money away from babies and people who need assistance.

So let’s work out something that is reasonable. And the loan situation was very reasonable, and I think people saw it that way. It was like, okay, that makes sense. We’re giving in money for a certain period of time. But you’ve got to give us a return on it. And again, the return was so quite obviously very low, but it still made the point that this is not a giveaway. And I think people like that.

ND: Are you surprised it hasn’t caught on in more cities? I kind of am.

NL: Part of the reason it probably hasn’t is like all of these, I would say, creative solutions that you find in many cities on many different issues, is the need to really get that information out to the cities. You need an ongoing organization that distributes information so they can help one another.

I went from there doing a number of other things, one of which was creating this national organization called Local Progress. I pulled together the first meeting and it went awesome — in fact, I just got back from Minneapolis where we had our annual convening meeting, and we went from less than 30 people, by now it’s close to 800 members across the country, who are self-described progressive municipal officials, and that’s a the broad definition. But basically, yes, we believe in social justice, economic opportunities, making sure there’s racial equality. Those kinds of things. But also cities literally are experimental labs where people are doing things that are innovative, unless they’re stopped by the state and preempted, which is an ongoing battle.

So no one’s really taken that idea and run with it as hard as they could. You need an organization for doing that. Subsidizing sports teams is still a little bit off the radar for so many of the big issues — obviously you’re talking about immigration issues, obviously you’re talking about, unfortunately, violence of police to minority communities. So that is just higher on the agenda.

ND: Does it also hurt that the Sonics did leave after that? Obviously it wasn’t because of I-91, but—

NL: Yeah, it did obviously. The Sonics were always liked. But as I point out, the Sonics left because the owners decided to move. It wasn’t any politician, it wasn’t even the public. It’s a private enterprise. And they decided they wanted to go somewhere else. And that’s really the downside, sadly, of so many professional sports teams — with the exception of Green Bay — the communities really don’t have an investment in them.

ND: Right, or any kind of hooks in them.

NL: Leverage.

ND: As I think we said in our book, but we certainly said over the years, they always say “And now, your Chicago Bulls,” but they’re not really your Chicago Bulls.

NL: Exactly.

ND: I was going to say, it almost even seemed like the way that David Stern the NBA responded to the Sonics leaving, there was not just a “This team has the right to move,” but a “We’re going to make an example out of you.”

NL: Oh, totally.

ND: Because it doesn’t happen that often that teams leave because they are saying that they didn’t get a better stadium or arena deal. And it’s very much a “Well, you dared to make demands of the local sports team owner, and we just can’t have that.” And David Stern over and over again said, “We’re never going to give them another team unless things change.”

Which leads to my next question: It seems like in the long term, obviously the Sonics fans and basketball fans have been unhappy about the team leaving. But the way it’s turned out for the whole discussion that happened around Chris Hansen’s plan and now the Key Arena redevelopment, it really went a completely different way than it does in a whole lot of other cities because you did have I-91 as that governing principle. Regardless of what the specifics of the law said, the idea there was, well, you have to show how the public is going to get some kind of return on their investment.

NL: Yes, exactly. What it did is it created a framework that the public officials felt that the public had already spoken on and quite loudly. Technically legally they could probably still get around it, but I think I think we affected the culture to the extent that when professional teams, in this case, are looking at coming to Seattle, they figured, well, you know, they didn’t do too well. They didn’t really pay attention to what the public’s concerns were. So I think they wanted to make sure they mad an offer that was good enough that they couldn’t be attacked on those grounds. And the thing about Stern that’s funny to me — I think I even remember somewhere he actually personally at me once made some swipe and it was “Oh my god, this guy is so petty, I can’t believe it.” Identifying individuals in cities because, like you said, we dared to question, in that case, a sports clubs of millionaires, probably in some cases billionaires, that own these teams. And they just didn’t want to see their profits clipped.

ND: But at the same time, the way things have turned out — and certainly Seattle doesn’t have an NBA team now, but they certainly are being considered for one — it goes to show that if you have a decent market, the sports leagues can’t blacklist you forever. It would be cutting off their nose to spite their face for the NBA to say, “Well, Seattle treated us wrong, so therefore we’re just not ever going to go to Seattle again.”

NL: Right. If we were a different city it might play out differently. But the reality is it’s a marketplace. And if you have a good market and they have a good product, they’re looking around at their competition thinking, “I could tap this market.” And they look at the cost and the cost-benefit analysis. And the reality is that the kind of requirements we put on and the kind of discussion we’re having are not really going to affect the bottom line all that much. You just work it into the business pro forma and they go, yeah, this works, we can do it.

ND: Something that always gets to me is that city officials never seem to understand the leverage that they have. It’s a negotiation — you can’t just go in and make all the demands that you want, say okay, this is how it’s going to be. But if you’re a city official in a city of any reasonable size, you have a market that is valuable and you are able to put that on the table up against the sports team owner who has a sports franchise that is valuable in the same way. You can’t have a sports team without an owner and without a franchise, but at the same time you can’t have a sports team without a place to play.

And I guess I’m curious, as someone who spent a lot of time both in Seattle local government and also talked to other elected officials, if you have a sense of why that is. Why does it seem to be that whether it’s sports teams or it’s an Amazon or a Boeing or whoever it is, it always seems to be this idea of “We’ve just got to do whatever they say, because they’re the ones who control the economic activity and it’s just the way the game is played”?

NL: Well, that’s a good summary. I honestly agree. Most elected officers really want to do the right thing, they really want to benefit most people. But what happens so often is once they get into office, and even when they win without the support of big business, often they’re still intimidated by big business, or deep pockets. Because I think they lose faith in how they got elected — they lose faith in the potential strength that citizens have if they’re organizing. And that’s why one of the things I always argue is that once you get elected to office, you’re still a citizen. If you were an organizer before, you continue to be; and if you weren’t before, then you should become one. Because the only way you’re going to get anything passed as an official is if you can demonstrate to the other people that you’re trying to get votes from on the council, whatever, there are a lot of people supporting your position.

So I think what happens is that council members — or whoever gets elected — lose touch with their own base. And you have to remember that the folks with money are almost always more likely to be lobbying you. And most of them are very nice; a lot of them are very intelligent. It’s a very slow process of acclimating yourself to “Oh, these are reasonable people.” And then the worst thing that happens, I think — it really tips the balance — is that when they say, “Well, let’s study it,” inevitably they bring in consultants or economists who are probably predilected to noticing and measuring all those things that are good about having a sports team as opposed to lost opportunity costs, which they almost never measure.

And secondly when there’s what’s called a request for proposal, they shape the research in a way that almost inevitably leads you to the conclusion that having an investment of a hundred-plus million dollars is something that will benefit the city. They never do a cost-benefit analysis, a strict one — but they can point to some multiplier effect, which often, as you know, means every dollar they spend on getting the sports team is multiplying more jobs or more economic growth. And that’s a very loose number, if not imaginative.

So the elected officials set themselves up not to challenge the person on the other side of the negotiating table to do the best they can to help the citizens. It’s sort of “Oh, okay, we hear your argument, and we see that we got this study that isn’t really in-depth but it looks like it will support what your cause is.” And then they just roll over.

ND: Yeah, I feel like people in general misunderstand the role of money and the way it works in, certainly, local politics. I think there’s this idea that people are going in and buying politicians, either by offering campaign money or by outright bribes — or by something that’s more of a direct process. Whereas, and you’re not the first person I’ve heard this from, that it’s more about buying access. It’s about the fact that if you’re the big local business person, whether it’s sports or some other business, you can be the person who is having the lobbyists and the people who are constantly in the ears of local elected officials, whereas people who are not in that position have to do that the old fashioned route of trying to call people’s offices and get through to the right person. Is that a fair way of putting it?

NL: Yes. I mean, certainly large contributions do make a difference. And we have in Seattle caps on contribution limits. The last I checked, $750 is the most you could give in any four-year period. So it’s not a whole lot.

But think about it: If you collect ten of those, that’s a lot easier than trying to collect hundreds of twenty-dollar contributions. And also if you look at almost any election, and I’ve looked at Seattle’s and a couple of other cities, you find almost inevitably less than 2 percent of the people voting are giving any money whatsoever to a candidate. So the money makes a difference, but it’s also the access. You remember who gave you money last, you remember who endorsed you. And you build this sense of feeling comfortable around them — feeling like they’re not really trying to manipulate you. And often, quite honestly, the way I’ve found that key businesses — sports teams, whatever — work is that for the most part they don’t care about what you do, particularly in Seattle, on social policy issues. But when you’re talking about something in their play box, they are there a hundred percent and you better be too, or they’re just going to remember that they can come back after you.

ND: Is there any way to do anything about that? Just the fact that once you’re in elected office you are soaking in this world of the business-politics complex, whatever you want to call it, that is going to be steering you towards a certain view of governance.

NL: Well, the short answer is yes. And the longer answer involves basically looking at public financing of campaigns that will allow people who are not wealthy not to be beholden to special interest groups once they get into office. It doesn’t guarantee you’re going to win. But Seattle passed the most unique public financing arrangement in the country, called Democracy Vouchers: Essentially every resident in Seattle up to a certain age gets what’s called a voucher — fifty dollars, and you can give that to a candidate, and the candidate field then can help finance their campaign.

But other cities have various formulas for doing public financing. And what’s really interesting, as a side note, is that with public financing what they’ve discovered is that the group of people who are less likely to run unless they know that they can raise money are women. So an unintended positive consequence of public financing that you find more women running for office.

ND: More broadly, how do you see things going both in the sports stadium world and in terms of how these kinds of decisions about how our money is spent get made? I periodically get asked, “Do you think the tide is turning?” because there’s some success here or there, and I’m always like, “I don’t know, the last five times I predicted the tide was turning I was wrong, so I’m always hesitant to predict it now.”

But this is something clearly you’ve been working on, especially since since leaving the Seattle council and helping form this organization. Are there promising signs? Are there directions that you see are ways to work towards getting to the point where maybe we won’t be having to have this same conversation in another 20 years?

NL: Yes, I do. I believe that strongly. And I as evidence point to, say, over the last two or three decades, what we’ve seen is that cities, particularly our larger cities, have had much more responsive elected officials to their local voters than I think in prior years. And I would measure that by the number of cities who — and you’re in a better position than I am I think — have looked more with a critical eye at just opening up the coffers for professional sports teams, but also at a number of issues that have developed in cities. The last number I’ve seen, up to 10 million people have had higher minimum wages, benefited from them, who live in cities where they’ve passed increasing the minimum wage. That wouldn’t have happened two decades ago. Same thing with paid sick leave. In other words, a number of laws have been passed by councils and mayors who I believe have benefited from the grassroots organizing. But also it’s like changing the culture in that it’s no longer, first of all, white men with cigars in a backroom — you have more ethnic, racial diversity — and also with the growth of public financing, which has been around for a little but growing, you’re getting a more diverse group of people who are in office.

One of the things that I find going around the cities and talking about my book Becoming a Citizen Activist — I always go to talk to people on city councils — one of the arguments that is used that weakens democracy is “The government’s bad” or “We want to shrink government” and “Government’s the enemy.” Well, depends on the government. If you’re talking about dictatorship, yes, that’s true. If you’re talking about democracy, then I don’t think that’s true — in fact, you want a democracy that has a functioning government. Because if you don’t have a functioning government in a democracy, then power is going to fall to those who have the most wealth — who have the most access to those in power and most access to politicians.

And what we’re now seeing is a battle going on. The states are not as close to voters as cities are, and in states like Arizona, for instance, the citizens in a number of cities passed bans on plastic bags because they were concerned about the environment. The state legislature is controlled more by big money, and passed laws that said cities can’t do that any longer. That’s true for any number of other bills or regulations that local cities could pass that states that are more, I’d say, in the pockets of people who have large donations try to override them.

So there is an ongoing struggle right now. We haven’t turned the corner, but we have made progress and the only way we’re going to continue to make progress is to continue to build on what we’ve already accomplished. And to continue to support organizations outside of government, but also people who are in government to make sure that they’re working with a wide range of constituents as possible.

ND: Well, I, for one, promise to try to live long enough to see this change completed if you do.

NL: Right, we all do. This is the thing: I’m somewhat of a believer that we’re never going to live in nirvana, okay? There will always be challenges; there will always be things that are not right; there will always be shortcomings to people that you elect to office. But the moment you believe that it’s not worth trying, then it’s like walking away from the game, because the people left at the table playing the game are totally going to get their way, because they’re not going to look out for your interest.

So two things I keep in mind is: One, you have a choice — you have to participate in the game of politics and the game of democracy, because if you don’t someone else is going to run your life. And secondly, you should enjoy that game. It’s like sports. You got to think about it as: This is not just good for everyone and yourself, and not only does it create good, but it’s a good process to go through. That’s why I’m a strong believer in democracy and argue that we have to, if nothing else, protect the vibrancy of our democracy.

ND: Now I’m kind of wishing that I were writing a new book, because that would have been a perfect closing quote.

Friday roundup: Untangling NYCFC’s stadium plan, fighting over the Crew’s future, and what to do with a luxury suite

Sorry for the radio silence the last couple of days — it was a combination of not much super-urgent breaking news and a busy work schedule on my end — but let’s remedy that with a heaping helping of Friday links:

  • Part of that busy schedule was wrapping up work on my Village Voice article trying to unravel NYCFC’s latest stadium plan, and while the upshot remains what it was a month ago — this is a Rube Goldberg–style proposal with so many moving parts that it’s hard to say yet if it would involve public subsidies — it also involves city parks land that isn’t really parkland but is really controlled by another city agency that isn’t really a city agency and denies having control over it … go read it, you’ll either be entertained or confused or both!
  • The state of Maryland has luxury suites at the Baltimore Ravens and Orioles stadiums, and Gov. Larry Hogan mostly uses them for family members and political cronies. This should come as a surprise to no one, but it’s a reminder that getting government use of a suite as part of a stadium deal is less a public benefit than a, what do you call those things?
  • Based on questions asked at a Monday hearing, The Stranger concludes that most King County council members aren’t opposed to the Seattle Mariners‘ demand for $180 million in future county upgrade spending on Safeco Field, in exchange for the team signing a new lease. That could still change, obviously, but only if all of you readers turn toward Seattle and shout this post in unison. Three, two, one, go!
  • MLS commissioner Don Garber says talks are “ongoing” with the city of Columbus about replacing the Crew if they move to Austin, and by “with the city of Columbus” he apparently means the local business council the Columbus Partnership. And even their CEO, Alex Fischer, doesn’t sound too in the mood to talk, noting that Garber has called for a new downtown stadium in Columbus while not requiring the same of Austin: “I find it extremely ironic that the commissioner wants a downtown stadium at the same time that the McKalla site is the equivalent of building a stadium in Buckeye Lake.” MLS deputy commissioner Mark Abbott retorted that Fischer’s remarks are “certainly a strange way to demonstrate an interest in working with us.” The lines of communication are open!
  • The owners of Nashville S.C. would have to pay $200,000 a year in city rent on their new stadium, which is … something, at least. Except, reports the Tennessean, “Parking revenue collected from non-soccer events at the new MLS stadium, such as concerts or football games, would go toward the annual base rent and could potentially cover the entire amount.” So maybe not really something.
  • Glendale has extended its arena management deal with AEG through 2026, which will mean continuing to pay $5.6 million annual management fees, but also collecting about $1.6 million a year in shared arena revenues. That’s not good, but it is significantly better than the lease that had the city paying the owners of the Arizona Coyotes more than $7 million a year after revenue shares, so yay Glendale for tearing up that lease and bidding out the contract to at least cut their losses.
  • Here’s Austin’s lead negotiator with Crew owner Anthony Precourt over a new stadium, Chris Dunlavey of Brailsford and Dunlavey. on whether the deal is fair to taxpayers: “All around, I don’t know how it could get characterized as favorable to [Precourt Sports Ventures]. I think the city of Austin has negotiated this to as favorable for a city as PSV could stand to do.” Uh, Chris, you do know that “good for the public” and “as least awful for the public as we could get” aren’t the same thing, right?
  • Former U.S. senator Barbara Boxer has thrown her weight behind Inglewood residents opposing a new Los Angeles Clippers arena because it could cause gentrification and displacement. Which, not all arenas do, but in hot urban areas like L.A. it doesn’t take much to cause gentrification and displacement, so I can certainly see why there’s concern.
  • An otherwise unidentified group calling itself Protect Oakland’s Shoreline Economy has issued flyers opposing the A’s building a stadium at Howard Terminal because, among other things, it could displace homeless encampments to make way for parking lots. This is getting David Beckham–level silly, but also it’s getting harder and harder not to feel like the A’s owners should just give in and build a stadium at the Coliseum site, since at least nobody seems to mind if they do that. Yet.