No, community benefits agreements aren’t the solution to stadium subsidies

Here’s British journalist Ian Betteridge explaining his eponymous law of headlines:

Any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word “no.” The reason why journalists use that style of headline is that they know the story is probably bullshit, and don’t actually have the sources and facts to back it up, but still want to run it.

So when Deadspin runs an article asking, “Has Detroit Found An Answer To The Publicly Financed Stadium Scam?” you should probably approach it with a grain of salt. But for the record, allow me to answer Deadspin’s question:

No.

What the Detroit city council is considering is a law to require community benefits agreements for all development projects. CBAs, as they’re known, are agreements that developers negotiate with local residents, community groups, and other stakeholders committing to jobs and other local benefits as part of a project; as state assemblyperson Rashida Tlaib told Deadspin, “We are allowing these large corporations—companies that could build a hockey arena without our money—to get in the corporate welfare line and take resources away from us. In exchange for what?”

In theory, CBAs sound great: If developers want public money, they have to give the public something in return! In practice, they’re more problematic. While everyone loves to point to the CBA for development around the Staples Center in L.A., which got parks and job training for local residents impacted by the new construction, there are far more CBAs that haven’t worked out as well: The one the New York Yankees set up, for example, which arranged for a “charity” that handed out benefits to several groups that barely existed, and which didn’t bother to keep track of how many Bronx residents were hired at the new stadium. There’s also the problem of how the “community” is defined: then-New Jersey Nets owner Bruce Ratner famously paid to set up community groups that he could then negotiate a CBA with, over the objections of much of the rest of the community.

And even when CBAs are legit, more or less, there’s still the problem that they’re less a referendum on whether pumping public money into a development project is good for a city as a whole, and more a way for community members to demand a cut of the boodle. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing — as Tlaib implies, at least if you’re shelling out all that money, you might as well demand something in return — but it can end up being just an easily applied fig leaf for developers, and an incentive for community groups to trade their support for what amounts to a cash payoff, rather than keeping the broader public interest in mind.

So, points to Deadspin for covering this, but more points off for a misleading clickbaity headline. Developers may hate the mandatory-CBA plan — developers hate mandatory-anything plans — but that doesn’t necessarily make it a good thing.


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