Sports teams can’t save a city, but if you squint hard enough you can pretend they can

You probably didn’t even know that Gary, Indiana spent $50 million in 2002 to build a sports stadium for an independent-league baseball team, theGary South Shore RailCats— I didn’t know, so I’d be stunned if you did. But now that you do, I bet you’re wondering, “Wait, are people really flocking to downtown Gary, Indiana just because there’s a minor-league baseball team in town?

Fortunately for you, the Times of Northwest Indiana has the answer, and it’s no, not so much:

Walking down Fifth Avenue, where the U.S. Steel Yard is located, it’s not hard to see how much remains to be done. The Steel City Buffet owned by the Gary Empowerment Zone across from the stadium is again in search of an operator. The barbecue joint in the same building is empty. A Bennigan’s restaurant was kicked out of the Steel Yard itself after shootings outside, rowdy nights inside and failure to pay rent…

And it’s hard not to notice the largest projects counted by the mayor as successes have all been heavily, and in some cases completely, subsidized by government. Stand-alone private investment is almost nil.


“There is a lot of traffic out there,” said Christopher Maxfield, 42, owner of a small building with apartments and shop space just across from the stadium. “I just wish it would slow down a little and that some of them would stop here.”…

“The impact the stadium has had for me?” Key muses as business winds down for the day at Fresh Coast Coffee Co. “I’d say it’s more a psychological benefit.”

“It serves to mitigate a lot of the negative publicity the city of Gary has received,” Key goes on to say. “Now thousands of people have come into Gary on a summer evening and had good family fun.”

That’s all pretty typical of what one tends to hear from businesses around sports facilities — it’s nice to give people something to say about your downtown other than that it doesn’t have any doctors or dentists or Walgreens-style general stores, as is the case in Gary, but it’s really hard to catch the firehose of people swarming into games and back out three hours later to build, say, a restaurant clientele. But it’s nice to see a local newspaper interviewing actual business owners to see the impact or lack thereof of a sports facility, unlike … oh, say, Indianapolis Star columnist David Masciotra, who chimed in today with this Atlantic Cities piece about how stadium subsidies are working out at the other end of the state, in Indianapolis:

In the 1960s, visitors and all but the most loyal residents gave it the nickname “Nap Town.” The joke being that the only thing to do in Indianapolis is take a nap… Now, Indianapolis is still the host of the Indy 500, but it is also home to an NBA team, an NFL franchise, a minor baseball team, 200 restaurants, 300 retail shops, 28 museums and galleries, and 12 performing arts theaters. All of these entertainment venues and service businesses attract a growing market of Indiana visitors and out-of-state tourists…

The New York Times praised Indianapolis’ “thriving culture scene,” while the Los Angeles Times called the success of its revitalization project, “breathtaking.”

The unemployment rates in Indiana and Indianapolis are lower than the national average, and both the state and city have sizable budget surpluses.

The essay, which features zero quotes from anyone actually in Indianapolis, is already getting shredded by Atlantic Cities commenters, who have noted errors both small — the Colts moved to Indianapolis in 1984, not “the 1970s,” and the city hosted the Super Bowl in 2012, not 2006 — and large — that “sizable” city budget surplus is actually a $55 million deficit, and comes on the heels of years of painful budget cuts to close past budget gaps. Which weren’t entirely created by the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on new buildings for the Colts and Pacers, or by the tens of millions more that the city gave to the Pacers to keep playing in their brand-new arena, but it sure didn’t help.

To be fair, by the end of the article Masciotra does credit Indianapolis’s alleged renaissance — which, as one flabbergasted Indiana correspondent wrote to me, is sourced partly to an L.A. Times article from “19-friggen-86” — to not putting all its eggs in the basket of sports, but rather to “cross-sector partnership” that helped spur new shops and “the second largest collection of urban monuments in the country.” (And also to lowering property and business taxes and privatizing services, which also haven’t actually worked out all that swimmingly.) But that just raises the question: If you still have to build public fountains and give tax breaks to downtown businesses in order to create development, can you really claim that it was sports that provided your magic beans?

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5 comments on “Sports teams can’t save a city, but if you squint hard enough you can pretend they can

  1. Atlantic Cities seems to like to quote aspirational thinkers who don’t seem overbothered with actually making a substantial argument.

    I realize he probably didn’t write the headline, but I wonder how he would attribute the effect of “sports” when Detroit has as many recently-built “major league” stadiums and more teams as Indianapolis, with seemingly no effect?

    Or, I wonder what he’d make with those stories that come out every once in a while about people who reach the age of 100 while smoking half a pack a day.

  2. I had to stop reading the atlantic cities article before reaching the end, because it was so stupid. Thanks everyone for taking the hit and reporting back. Sounds like I didn’t miss much not finishing it.


  3. That monument is the “circle” and was built in 1909. LOL. The Childrens Musuem came in to existence I believe in the1930’s and has never ever taken one dime of taxpayers money, but yet is the largest draw the city has. The tech hotbed could have a little truth to it. I could go on, but you get the idea.

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