Poll: Phoenix residents think Suns arena subsidy is a good thing once you tell them it’s a good thing

As the Phoenix city council continues its month-long dog and pony show to convince constituents into changing their minds about spending $168 million in public money on Suns arena renovations being a terrible idea, they’re still stuck on the problem that Phoenix residents overwhelmingly think it truly is terrible. So the Greater Phoenix Chamber (of commerce) took matters into its own hands by conducting a new poll that claims to show that residents stop hating the deal so much once you explain to them that, no, really, it’s good:

The poll found that when respondents were given basic information about the deal and how the cost would be divided — $150 million paid by the city and $80 million paid by the Suns — 23 percent supported the deal and 52 percent opposed it, while a quarter had no opinion.

When they were given information about the city’s funding mechanism, arena events, the arena’s economic impact and the use of the arena by youth groups, respondents who supported the deal increased to 49 percent and those opposed shrank to a quarter, while 26 percent had no opinion — a 53-point shift.

That is indeed a large shift! What exactly was this “information about the city’s funding mechanism, arena events, the arena’s economic impact and the use of the arena by youth groups” that caused the scales to fall from their eyes?

So basically, once you tell Phoenix residents that this is existing tax money, not a new tax; that the city of Phoenix currently collects more revenue from the arena than it would spend on the renovation; and that arena renovations will create spinoff economic growth for local businesses, then suddenly it sounds like a great idea!

Except that that “information” ranges from mildly misleading to outright untrue. Yes, the money would come from existing hotel and car rental taxes, but if the city spends it on the Suns, it won’t have that money to spend on something else, so may have to raise other taxes if it wants to pay for that something else. Yes, the city gets revenues from the arena, but that would be true with or without renovations, and indeed even with or without the Suns, since the arena still hosts concerts and other things as well. And as for spinoff growth for local businesses, I have no clue where that claim came from, but it’s exceedingly dubious: Local businesses are already located near an arena, and would continue to be even if it’s renovated, so there’s no net benefit there; if anything, adding more amenities could encourage fans to spend more of their entertainment dollars inside the arena gates, which would be bad for neighboring businesses.

There is nothing wrong with criticizing looking solely at up-front expenses on a sports project and saying that’s insufficient, you need to look at revenues (and, for that matter, annual operations costs) as well — I’ve been harping on that for a long time now, in fact. But obviously, the chamber’s poll isn’t meant to take a more holistic look at arena costs and benefits and see how that influences public opinion. It’s better looked at as a campaign document: Which arguments in favor of a new Suns arena will convince people that this is a good idea? And given that city officials have already started rolling out some of these arguments — “it’s not really a tax!” was the first one last weekend — clearly they’re eager to make use of the new intelligence.

Anyway, I would be tempted to chalk all this up to the workings of democracy (in a world where democracy is controlled by whoever has the money to pay for publicity campaigns, anyway), except then I remember that this entire exercise is only taking place because Suns owner Robert Sarver needs to rush this whole thing through before the March election of a new mayor who is likely to think it’s a terrible idea. Maybe Sarver and the chamber and everybody should cut out the middleman, and instead spend their time and energy on lobbying the mayoral candidates to convince them that tax money isn’t really tax money? The chamber of commerce has a whole bunch of pie charts ready to go!

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