Look out, Saskatoon, here comes Mark Rosentraub with his tales of arena milk and honey

My apologies for not keeping you up to speed on events in Saskatoon, where the city has been considering building a new downtown arena, at a potential price tag of $375 million plus land costs, to replace the 30-year-old SaskTel Centre. That’s been going on for a few months; I mention it now because University of Michigan sports economist Mark Rosentraub is in town (in Saskatoon, I mean, not in my town or yours, unless you live in Saskatoon) to give a talk about building a new downtown arena, and how totally awesome it would be:

“Sport venues have been very, very successful,” said Mark Rosentraub, professor of sports management at the University of Michigan…

“There is no city where we have not been able to literally put something together something where the public sector gains and the private sector gains,” he told CBC Radio’s Saskatoon Morning.

Setting aside Rosentraub’s odd syntax — it’s a transcribed radio interview, I’ll cut him some slack — you may be forgiven for wondering, What, what the hell is he on about? Isn’t this entire website a 20-year record of cities that have not been able to put together something where the public and private sectors both gain?

Rosentraub has long been an odd duck in the sports stadium world. Way back in 1997, he wrote a book called Major League Losers, which, as you can probably guess from the title, talked about private sports stadiums as bad deals for cities. Since then, though, he’s been more sunny on the prospect, noting that building venues downtown can move economic activity to the city center — true, if your only concern is where people spend their money and not how much they spend in your metro area overall. It will be left as an exercise for readers to determine whether this change of message is related to Rosentraub’s side business of working as a consultant for cities and teams that want to build downtown stadiums and arenas.

Anyway, building a new arena isn’t an inherently terrible idea, if the city will own it and get any increased revenues from it, and — crucially — if those new revenues will be enough to make it worth the $400 million-ish price tag. The only sports tenants are the minor-league junior hockey Saskatoon Blades and the National Lacrosse League team the Saskatchewan Rush, so this deal would have to pencil out based on being able to draw more concerts to town. Could Saskatoon make an extra $25-30 million a year just by offering more concession stands and restrooms? That’s the interesting and important question that needs to be asked, rather than nattering about how an arena can “anchor” an “entertainment district.” I can recommend several sports economists, or even arena managers, who could begin to address that question, if anyone in Saskatoon is interested.

Friday roundup: The news media are collectively losing their goddamn minds edition

It’s a full slate this week, so let’s do this!

Rhode Island house speaker now says he’ll okay $38m in PawSox stadium subsidies if he can make the city cover any state revenue shortfalls

If you’re a close follower of Rhode Island state politics — we’ve gotta watch something now that Roseanne has been canceled, right? — you’ll recall House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello as the guy who keeps declaring Pawtucket Red Sox stadium plans dead because the people of Rhode Island hate it. Though he’s also the guy who kept holding hearings on a stadium proposal anyway, and now he’s the guy who decided that giving $38 million to a minor-league sports team is just peachy so long as the money is capped there:

Mattiello’s plan — its fine print is still being written — will follow the contours of ballpark legislation passed by the Senate earlier this year, he told reporters Tuesday, but remove state backing from more than $80 million in proposed borrowing.

“I think the most important thing that we can say about it is, once we set up the framework, that there is no state guarantee,” Mattiello said. “The state of Rhode Island taxpayers will not be responsible for any of the debt associated with that project.”

The new plan goes like this: The stadium would still cost $83 million to build, which would be paid back by a combination of the team, state, and city. But the state’s share would be limited to tax money from a tax increment financing district around the stadium — in other words, increased property taxes would be kicked back to pay for the stadium construction instead of going into the state’s coffers like it normally would.

This would indeed solve one of the big problems with TIFs — that sometimes they don’t actually generate any revenue and local governments are left holding the bag — but not the more fundamental problem, which is that they often just cannibalize money that the public would be getting anyway, if, say, a new stadium means that a bunch of development gets built there instead of across town.

Anyway, with the state limiting its exposure under Mattiello’s plan, any TIF-related shortfall would have to be covered by … who would it have to be covered by, exactly?

“If revenue comes up short, the Pawtucket Redevelopment Agency will have to figure out how to deal with it,” Mattiello said.

Oh, excellent, so if the state can’t find enough taxpayers to pay its stadium bills, then city taxpayers will have to pick up the slack. I’m so glad that Rhode Island’s elected officials are there to be watchdogs of the public interest, aren’t you?

MLS decides Cincinnati has held breath and turned purple enough, awards city expansion franchise

Six weeks after voting to approve $63 million in soccer stadium subsidies and yet still not getting an MLS expansion team, Cincinnati finally has an MLS expansion team:

“We fought hard over the last six months … to get a stadium site that is unprecedented,” [MLS commissioner Don Garber] said. “This could be Bernabéu. This could be Anfield. You have a stadium that’s going to be built in a great, great part of the community.”

Nice name-checking of the homes of the two Champions League finalists, though I regret to inform you that F.C. Cincinnati is never going to be in the European Champions League finals, for many, many reasons.

Anyway, the holdup was apparently to get all the t’s crossed and i’s dotted with Cincinnati’s stadium plan, which makes sense from the MLS’s point of view. Though maybe less sense when one considers that the t’s aren’t actually any more crossed than they were back in April:

Opponents of FC Cincinnati’s West End stadium could launch a petition drive to put a key part of a $50 million public financing package on November’s ballot, a referendum effort that could deprive the club of $17 million in public funding from the city for infrastructure and site preparation.

If voters killed such funding, it probably would not derail the stadium for the new Major League Soccer franchise, but organizers see it as a way to make the project more fiscally responsible for taxpayers at a time when the city of Cincinnati faces a budget deficit of up to $34 million.

So okay then. Either MLS thinks that the referendum drive will fail because the city structured its stadium vote as a no-referendum-backsies-allowed “emergency” measure, or they figure they can get some public body to pay the $17 million either way, or they were just sick of waiting around and needed to start selling season tickets. In any event, Cincinnati is now MLS’s 238th franchise (press reports say 26th, but it sure feels like 238); Sacramento, Detroit, and everybody else, please come back later to begin a new bidding war, because everybody gets bees an MLS franchise!

FC Cincinnati won its stadium vote thanks to dodgy campaign contributions

F.C. Cincinnati, you will recall, is getting $63.8 million in public subsidies thanks to a 5-4 vote of the city council last month, one that was held as an emergency measure so that regular citizens couldn’t overturn it in a public vote. And that key fifth vote, it turns out, is only in office thanks to a narrow winning margin helped along by $73,000 in campaign contributions from questionable sources:

It’s fair to say Republican Jeff Pastor’s questionable $54,600 personal campaign loan and $18,500 in “dark money” were likely good enough for 223 votes in last year’s City Council election. That was the slim margin the rookie candidate defeated Democrat Michelle Dillingham, whose 10th-place finish kept her off Council.

Questions are swirling about where Pastor got the money to loan to his campaign and whether a “dark money” nonprofit obeyed the rules when it electioneered for a candidate. That’s not to mention Pastor’s bizarre decision to pass out five-figure checks to churches during the campaign – money supposedly from his day-job boss Charlie Shor’s epilepsy foundation.

The story, as far as I can tell, is that Pastor loaned money to his own campaign at the same time as his boss loaned him money for a home mortgage, while also accepting that $18,500 from a Super PAC that doesn’t disclose its donors. None of that is necessarily illegal, but not keeping track of how he raised the money or spent it is — and Pastor’s campaign records didn’t bother to include any expense information.

Now, no one is suggesting that F.C. Cincinnati had anything to do with the dodgy campaign funds — I mean, they could theoretically be the Super PAC donors (so could me or you or Sheldon Adelson), but that would have taken a remarkable degree of foresight to realize he’d be their key stadium vote five months later. But it does mean that, but for some petty breakage of campaign finance law, Cincinnatians might today not have a new soccer stadium in the works, and still have $63.8 million. But at least now they have a shot at soon watching the glory of MLS soccer in the flesh!

Cincinnati: Citizens can’t vote on soccer stadium deal, because it’s an “emergency”

A group of West End residents calling themselves the Coalition Against an FC Cincinnati Stadium have begun gathering signatures to put a referendum on the November ballot to decide whether to repeal the city’s deal to spend $64 million in cash and tax breaks on a new MLS stadium for F.C. Cincinnati, assuming F.C. Cincinnati gets invited to join MLS. But in any case, the city of Cincinnati is having none of this whole “popular vote” nonsense, arguing that because the stadium deal was passed as an “emergency” measure, it’s not subject to referendum:

The FC Cincinnati deal was passed as an “emergency” ordinance, and the city’s law department told The Enquirer Friday “if an ordinance is passed with an emergency clause, it is not subject to referendum.”

Emergency clauses allow ordinances to go into effect immediately instead of after 30 days…

“That this ordinance shall be an emergency measure is necessary for the preservation of the public peace, health, safety and general welfare,” the ordinance reads. “The reason for the emergency is to enable the MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) to be executed as soon as possible so that the Club can promptly move forward with its attempt to secure a bid for membership as a Major League Soccer franchise, which if granted will result in the construction of the stadium, the creation of job, and the stimulation of economic growth in the area at the earliest possible date.”

That takes a lot of balls, passing legislation as an “emergency” on the grounds that it will create such desperately needed economic growth that waiting even a month would put at stake the general welfare. (I’m going to assume here that “creation of job” is a simple typo and not a Freudian slip.) It’s not clear that there are any limits on the Cincinnati council’s power to determine what is and isn’t an emergency, though; as the Cincinnati Enquirer notes, a similar challenge to a 2013 emergency measure that would have privatized the city’s parking system — man, Cincinnati sure does have a lot of emergencies that involve handing public assets over to for-profit entities, don’t they? — was rejected on appeal, though it never received a final verdict as the parking privatization plan was eventually withdrawn.

In general, the history of after-the-fact attempts to repeal stadium subsidies isn’t a great one, going back to 2002 when the people of St. Louis voted to require that any sports subsidies be required to go up for a public vote, only to have the courts rule that this couldn’t apply to the then just-approved Cardinals stadium subsidy because it had already happened before the 2002 referendum. And then when it was time to approve subsidies for the Blues the St. Louis city council just went and decreed that it wouldn’t require a public vote. But don’t be too judgey of the councilmembers — it was probably an emergency.

Friday roundup: Spending on training facilities is a bad idea, Portland seeks MLB team, Jays game postponed after roof hit by falling ice

I can’t believe none of you wrote in to ask why I hadn’t reported on a Toronto Blue Jays game getting postponed due to falling ice puncturing a hole in the stadium roof, but I guess you’re all acclimated to waiting for the Friday roundup now for that sort of thing. But wait no longer! (Well, wait a few bullet points for that one in particular.)

Cincinnati’s new stadium doesn’t actually win it MLS franchise, at least not yet

MLS owners met yesterday, one day after Cincinnati approved $64 million in subsidies for a new F.C. Cincinnati soccer stadium, and … didn’t actually approve F.C. Cincinnati as an expansion franchise as boosters had hoped:

There are a couple of ways to read this: Either the Cincinnati stadium approval was too unexpected for MLS owners to get all their voting ducks in a row; or they really are intent on keeping this bidding war going, and seeing if maybe Cincinnati upping the ante convinces Sacramento to throw in a few more million dollars. (Sacramento the ownership group, Sacramento the city, it almost doesn’t matter.) Regardless, MLS has to be thrilled with how this expansion shakedown is going — it wasn’t that long ago that the league was at most looking at one subsidy-rich option to choose from — so holding off a little longer can’t hurt. I mean, it’s not like Cincinnati can revoke its stadium subsidy approval now just because it’s been told it has to wait 4-6 weeks for shipping, right?

Cincinnati council approves MLS stadium, West End residents remain pissed

Sure enough, the Cincinnati city council voted 5-4 to approve spending $34.8 million on a new MLS stadium in the West End (it will also get $15 million in county money plus around $14 million in discounted property-tax payments), clearing the way for F.C. Cincinnati‘s expansion bid. If that’s approved today, as expected — and it’s hard to see MLS turning down all this stadium cash for a team that has been wildly successful in attendance in the USL — Cincinnati will become the 517th MLS franchise (more or less, I’ve stopped counting) and Sacramento and Detroit will have to wait until the next round of expansion in a few hours (estimated).

That’s a whole bunch of money from a city that’s already poured even more than that into poorly received stadium deals for the Reds and Bengals — the latter of which famously required selling a public hospital to pay off — and it only took place after team owners arm-twisted a final vote by hashing out a last-second community benefits agreement to provide $100,000 a year for local organizations and provide some community oversight of elements like lighting, parking, and traffic. But at least West End residents got some say in what they’d get out of having their local high school football stadium torn down and rebuilt to make way for an MLS stadium, right?

The fight over the benefits agreement will continue on Tuesday, when the West End Community Council meets. Some members are calling for council president Keith Blake, who signed the agreement on Monday, to be impeached.

Ah, democracy.

Cincinnati could approve $63m stadium subsidy today, get MLS team tomorrow

The Cincinnati city council is set to vote on approval for an F.C. Cincinnati soccer stadium in the West End today at 4 p.m., which could lead to the city being awarded an MLS franchise as soon as tomorrow:

The vote would come just ahead of Tuesday’s Major League Soccer board of governors meeting in New York City. MLS has twice delayed awarding the next round of franchises, although Nashville did get one in late December. FC Cincinnati is in competition with Sacramento and Detroit.

Five votes are needed to pass the stadium plan, which would involve $63 million in public subsidies, and right now there are four sure votes, with councilmember Jeff Pastor reportedly holding out for a written community benefits agreement before signing off on the funds. Team president Jeff Berding, though, says he’s confident Pastor will vote yes:

“We’ve had great leadership at City Hall. I expect that tomorrow the ordinances that provide the public infrastructure to support our privately funded stadium will be approved,” Berding said Sunday after three days of last-ditch meetings in hopes of sealing the deal…

Berding said he worked through the weekend to meet Pastor’s demand to put the CBA in writing in time for council to review it before it votes at a 4 p.m. special session.

Um, that’s not really a community benefits agreement if you don’t negotiate it with the community, only with one councilmember in secret? [CLARIFICATION: Berding did say he’s been meeting with the West End Community Council to discuss the CBA, or at least with its executive board.] But you know, never mind, far worse deals have been cut for votes in other cities.

If there’s one thing for sure, it’s that the Cincinnati police department has not been leafletting the West End with flyers calling the neighborhood a “high violent crime area” just so that the soccer team owners can buy up land on the cheap. Probably.