The Virginia Beach city council voted last night on which of two arena plans to pursue, and according to the Virginian-Pilot, it “chose United States Management’s privately financed proposal” over a competing bid that would have “relied almost exclusively on taxpayer money from the city and state and would have forced the city to pay $262.5 million in debt service over the next 25 years.”
Well, that’s a no-brainer, right? So how does USM intend to pay for the arena without public money? Let’s see:
USM’s plan calls for it to spend more than $200 million of its own money to build the arena, then receive up to $7 million annually in tax revenue to pay down its debt.
Um, excuse me, what?
People, people. I understand that this whole “money” thing is hard to wrap your brains around. There’s money now, and money next week, and my money, and your money, and it can all be so confusing sometimes. But even elected officials and journalists have to understand that $7 million a year in tax revenue isn’t private money, right?
Actually, it could be more or less than $7 million a year — USM is asking to get 1% of the city’s hotel tax, plus a full kickback of all “taxes generated by the operation of the arena,” which presumably means sales, income, and property taxes, though don’t go looking in the Virginian-Pilot archives for an explanation of any of this. If tax revenues go up, USM gets more money; if they go down, USM has to cover the shortfall.
This is still likely better for the city than the competing W.M. Jordan plan, which would have required the public to pay off $10.5 million in annual bond payments, plus other costs. (The city would own the arena under the Jordan plan, but as we’ve covered here before, the last thing a city wants is to own an arena; it’s owning the arena’s revenue streams that’s the important part.) Of course, the USM plan could still fall apart — which given that it relies on getting a $200 million loan from a bank in China, seems like a pretty likely scenario — in which case the Jordan plan would be back on the table.
The important thing is, though, that whether you have the city paying to build an arena and “repaying” itself through the taxes paid by arena patrons that would normally go to the general fund, or the team paying to build an arena and repaying itself with those exact same taxes, it’s pretty much the same kind of tax subsidy. The Virginian-Pilot could have run a headline like “Council chooses less risky arena proposal,” but instead it went with “Va. Beach council picks privately funded arena plan,” which has the advantage of being more grabby, if the disadvantage of not actually being true.