The Arlington city council unanimously approved the Texas Rangers‘ $1 billion stadium plan yesterday, sending it to a November referendum of city voters, just four days after it was first made public, which has to be some kind of record. (Even Cobb County commissioners took two whole weeks before approving the new Atlanta Braves stadium, and they had to hide in hallways to evade open meetings laws — guess Texas doesn’t believe in those?)
And the deal, it turns out, could be even worse than last report: In addition to the city providing $500 million in construction cash, it would buy 49 acres of land and lease them back to the team in a deal where “no significant money would change hands,” according to the Dallas Morning News’s Jeff Mosier, but which would allow the Rangers to get out of paying property taxes on their parking lots. The city would also pay to build a new 2,000-space parking lot to make up for the parking that would be lost to the new stadium. Taken together, the public cost would now be well over half a billion dollars.
How much over, there’s no way of knowing, because the Arlington city website doesn’t provide any details of the deal or of what was voted on last night. It does, however, provide a “Frequently Asked Questions” document on the Rangers stadium plan that is a hilarious masterpiece of obfuscation. Let us count the ways:
- If your personal frequently asked question is “How much will this cost taxpayers?” then you won’t find the answer here. The FAQ says construction and infrastructure cost is “estimated at $1 billion” and the deal “calls for a 50-50 split between the Texas Rangers and the City of Arlington,” but there’s nothing at all on the cost of property tax breaks or new parking lots, so the actual public price tag is anybody’s guess.
- It does, however, answer (as its very first question!) the pressing query “When did the Texas Rangers move to Arlington?” Also “Will Arlington’s name be placed on the new ballpark?”, to which the FAQ mumbles a definitive “Yeah, in some way.”
- “Why do the Rangers need a new ballpark?” is actually a good question, and no doubt a frequently asked one. “The team has indicated a desire to have a new ballpark with a retractable roof, which will provide protection from the Texas weather, as well as state-of-the-art amenities to provide a premiere baseball experience” does not actually answer it, any more than a valid answer from a teenager to the question “Why should I buy you a new video game system?” is “Because I really want one!”
- The FAQ cites a study by consultants HR&A Advisors as showing that “the annual economic impact of the Rangers with a new ballpark is estimated to be $77.5 million for Arlington and $137.6 million for Tarrant County,” which it translates as “the net present value of the Rangers continued presence between 2016-2054 with a new ballpark would be $2.53 billion for Arlington and $4.49 billion for Tarrant County.” There’s no link provided to an actual study to show how HR&A came up with these numbers (best guess would be just adding up all the local spending by Rangers fans and applying some multiplier provided by an off-the-shelf statistical model, since that’s what their website says they do) — but more to the point, the description confuses economic activity (all spending taking place in a locality) with fiscal impact (actual tax revenue that results), making it sound like Arlington will see $2.53 billion in cash in exchange for its $500-million-plus expense, when it would actually be a small fraction of that. The share of sales tax that goes to city coffers, for example, is 1.25%, which even if all the economic activity were new and taxable would result in only about $31 million in new sales tax receipts over the next 40 years.
This is a PR document, pure and simple, and a damaging one — none more so than that last item, which makes it sound like this is a reasonable investment for Arlington taxpayers by massively bait-and-switching the actual monetary returns. John Hibb, a board member of the Arlington Independent School District, told yesterday’s hearing that “the loss of the Rangers means the loss of $77 million [annually],” and while it’s not immediately clear whether he was duped by the Rangers or is one of the dupers, the point is that this is what the public is hearing, and it’s somewhere between a massive misrepresentation of the truth and an outright lie.
Under normal circumstances, these kinds of funny numbers would get vetted in a public debate in the media and in public hearings, where critics could introduce other information from more disinterested sources. Instead, any actual discussion will now take place during a six-month referendum campaign, one where the Rangers owners, if they have a brain in their heads, will be pouring millions of dollars into advertising to push their message in hopes of landing more than half a billion dollars in exchange. This is a textbook case of “How to game a stadium vote,” and kudos to Rangers owners Ray Davis and Bob Simpson for pulling it off — though the Arlington council really deserves an assist for making it as easy as possible for them to do so. Next time you’re wondering if the real cause of the sports subsidy scam is greedy owners or craven politicians, the answer is: yes.