76ers owner vows no “direct” use of tax money for new waterfront arena while lobbying for massive tax kickbacks

I admit, it’s sometimes tough even for me to keep track of which stadiums and arenas are considered “new” or “old” — or “state-of-the-art” and “outmoded,” as sports team owners like to say. The Philadelphia Flyers and 76ersWells Fargo Center still feels new to me, but it’s 24 years old this month, so naturally one of those teams is already plotting how to leave for an even newer home:

The 76ers are exploring the possibility of building a new basketball arena at Penn’s Landing, and the team is lobbying local officials to get behind a plan to help finance construction with taxpayer support, The Inquirer has learned.

The proposal, sure to spark intense debate, is the latest in a long history of disputes over how to revitalize the Delaware River waterfront and where to put sports complexes in Philadelphia. The team wants to move out of the Wells Fargo Center, which it shares with the Flyers and which is owned by Comcast Spectacor, by the 2031 season, according to a planning document viewed by The Inquirer. The document is a draft of talking points for the Sixers’ lobbying efforts.

The Sixers rent from the Flyers, and have engaged in a series of squabbles over the years with their landlord, most memorably printing the arena’s corporate name in teeny tiny type because they weren’t sharing in the naming-rights cash. This, though, is the first concrete proposal for a new arena that’s been submitted to Philadelphia officials, and presumably the start of a long lobbying war by the team’s billionaire owner, Josh Harris.

More details on that “planning document,” from Philadelphia Business Journal:

A team document prepared to garner support for the project and shared with the Philadelphia Business Journal by an industry source states the franchise believes a new Penn’s Landing arena will:

  • Provide “billions of dollars in net new revenue to the city and the school for a property that currently produces no tax revenues” for the city or the state of Pennsylvania;

  • Create “thousands of new jobs, and provide significant new tax revenue” for the city and school district;

  • Include the creation of schools, parks and an African-American Museum at Penn’s Landing; and

  • Directly invest “unprecedented funds” in minority-owned businesses.

CBS Philly further reports that “the Sixers say they do not envision seeking any direct appropriation of city or state taxpayer money to support the project,” but the original Philadelphia Inquirer reports makes clear that that’s not true, unless you put a lot of weight on that adjective “direct”: Harris intended to apply for money from Pennsylvania’s Neighborhood Improvement Zone program, which siphons off future sales and income tax revenues from a large swath of land to pay off construction costs on a project — a STIF, in other words. The NIZ program was created in 2009 specifically so that Allentown could use future tax money to subsidize a new minor-league hockey arena, which ended up going massively over budget; the tax zone has been generating plenty of revenue to pay off the inflated costs, but that’s only if you count all the sales and income taxes collected anywhere near the arena to be new revenue, which it almost certainly is not.

In any case, Harris has clearly thrown down the gauntlet here, and it is one with “no new taxes!*” written on one side and “lots of new jobs!*” on the other. The opposing position has been staked out on Twitter by Philadelphia city councilmember Helen Gym:

To all those journalists who ask me periodically if I think the sports subsidy swindles are going to come to an end anytime soon: HELL NO. Why would billionaire sports owners stop demanding taxpayer subsidies now? It’s where the money is.

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10 comments on “76ers owner vows no “direct” use of tax money for new waterfront arena while lobbying for massive tax kickbacks

  1. That’s the first time I ever agreed with Helen Gym. She did “Wheely-Wheely-Good” this time.

    https://www.phillymag.com/news/2016/10/06/racist-food-truck-wheely-wheely-good-helen-gym/

  2. That’s a particularly shameless usage of the common selling points of creating things when in reality a new arena will just be taking half of the business done at the Wells Fargo Center away, so there is no way there could be an impact great enough to justify the cost of a river front arena.

    1. I’m sure they’ll argue that there’s nothing around the WFC, whereas the new place would have an “arena district” or what have you. And hope nobody notices that Sixers fans are still eating dinner before games, even if it’s not at a restaurant across the street.

      1. Isn’t there a “Philly Live” complex by the arena? I could have sworn they tore down the Spectrum (which was still active for a few years after the current arena was built” to create room for it.

        1. “Xfinity Live! is the home of five restaurant and entertainment venues including, Victory Beer Hall, PBR: A Coors Banquet Bar, Broad Street Bullies Pub, 1100 Social and NBC Sports Arena. The district also features an outdoor plaza that is home to the Miller Lite Concert Stage.”

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xfinity_Live!_Philadelphia

          The Wiki also notes that it contains “one of the largest high definition televisions on the East Coast,” which so does my living room, if you’re not too picky about “one of.”

          1. Yeah since Philly hasn’t really grown in population I can’t see why 2 arenas with surrounding districts would make sense

          2. …because ‘we’ might lose ‘our’ Sixers to, errr, Trenton, if we don’t!

            Or Wilmington. Take your pick. Either works as a non threat threat.

  3. One of the reasons the Allentown TIF is doing so “well” is that the Assembly wrote it very broadly on what taxes developers could take. One man has done 90 percent of the building, including the arena. He realized “all” meant “all” and moved a cigarette distributor into the Zone. He can use all excise and other taxes to pay down his construction costs.

    Of course normally these taxes would pay for the health insurance of poor children. Probably not what folks had in mind.

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