Columbus has no clue how Crew is spending $98m in city stadium money, can’t be bothered to check

I missed this news story from earlier this week about the Columbus Crew‘s new stadium spending until an eagle-eyed reader pointed it out to me, but unless you’re a regular reader of the Columbus Dispatch already, it’ll likely make your jaw drop as it did mine. I mean, the first line alone:

During the past year, tens of millions of public dollars have flowed toward construction of the Columbus Crew SC’s new Downtown stadium and its Mapfre training facility, but the local officials who approved the payments haven’t requested or received any details about how the team spends that money.

The Crew stadium project has never exactly been known for its transparency: Last year at this time, it was revealed that the city of Columbus had hidden $48 million in stadium costs in its “Other Projects” budget, effectively doubling the amount of city money being devoted to the stadium. (There’s at least another $65 million in county and state money as well, plus the value of public land being provided for the project.) Not even asking how taxpayer money is being spent, though, that’s pretty hardcore. And local officials are adamant that it’s not their job to pay attention to this stuff:

Asked how the public is to know what percentage of the total project cost it will pay, Ty Marsh, executive director of the Solid Waste Authority of Central Ohio and chairman of the Confluence Community Authority board, said: “I think the public would have to ask them,” referring to the team….

In fact, the Confluence Authority hasn’t met in more than 10 months, has reviewed no financials on the construction of the stadium it will lease back to the team, and has no immediate plans to meet in the future, Marsh said.

Okay, so the authority handing out the city’s money can’t be bothered to check on it, or even to meet. What about the city itself?

Asked if the city knows what had been spent to date by all parties involved, including the team, Robin Davis, spokeswoman for Columbus Mayor Andrew J. Ginther, replied in an email: “You would have to reach out to the Haslams for that.”

This is great reporting by the Dispatch, and since we’re coming to it late, we have the opportunity to see all of the fallout that’s already coming from the paper’s bombshell. And the answer is … a Dispatch columnist wrote a long allegory about a crooked magician? Other than that, it doesn’t appear that the story has had any consequences: Pretty much all the reporting on the Crew this week was limited to reporting on how they had rescheduled last week’s game that was postponed after two staff members tested positive for the coronavirus.

So I guess it’s up to me to shout about this: Hey everybody, the city of Columbus is writing $98 million in checks to the owners of its pro soccer team without bothering to keep track of how they’re spending it! Did that do the trick? SHOULD IT TYPE IT IN ALL CAPS? This entire website, not to mention the book that inspired it, not to mention my entire life’s work as a journalist, is dependent on the idea that if you expose bad behavior, someone will notice it and call attention to it and maybe, eventually, things will start to change. If instead we’re just laughing and pointing to keep from crying, I guess that’s valuable too, but someone please tell me so that I can recalibrate my already-low expectations.

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Friday roundup: County might buy Richmond a minor-league ballpark, ticket prices soar at new Crew stadium, plus more athletes giving each other the ‘Rona

It was a big news week, what with the Anchorage mayor who resigned after being slandered as a pedophile by the anti-masking news anchor he’d been sexting with before she was arrested and fired for beating up her boss/fiance, and the new book about the libertarian town in New Hampshire that was ravaged by bears, and probably something about the election, I dunno, who can remember? So you are forgiven if you missed some of this week’s stadium and arena news, much of which focused on fans breathing all over each other inside them, but not all, not by a longshot:

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Friday roundup: New Rangers stadium scam movie, Nevada arena petitions rejected over technicality, and many many dumb ideas for getting you (or cardboard cutouts of you) into stadiums this year

Welcome to the end of another crazy week, which seems redundant to say, since that’s all of them lately. I spent a bunch of it working on this article on what science (but not necessarily your local newspaper) can tell us about not just whether reopening after lockdowns is a good idea, but what kinds of reopening are safe enough to consider. And important enough to consider, since as one infectious disease expert told me, “It’s not ‘open’ or ‘shut’—there’s a whole spectrum in between. We need to be thinking about what are the high-priority things that we need to reopen from a functioning point of view, and not an enjoyment point of view.”

And with that cheery thought, on to other cheery thoughts:

  • If you’re a fan of either sports stadium shenanigans or calamitous public-policy train wrecks in general — and I know you are, or why would you be reading this site — you should absolutely check out “Throw A Billion Dollars From The Helicopter,” a new documentary about the Texas Rangers‘ successful campaign to extract half a billion dollars from the city of Arlington so they could play in air-conditioning. It’s a story that has everything: a mayor who was elected as a stadium-subsidy critic then turned around to approve the biggest stadium subsidy in local history, George W. Bush grubbing for public money and failing to do basic math, grassroots anti-red-light camera activists getting dragged into stadium politics, a trip back to the Washington Senators’ final home game before moving to Texas which they had to forfeit because fans ran on the field and walked off with the bases, footage of that 1994 Canadian TV news story I always cite about how video-rental stores comedy clubs in Toronto were so happy with extra business during the baseball strike that they wished hockey would go on strike too, plus interviews with stadium experts like Roger Noll, Rod Fort, Victor Matheson, Allen Sanderson (the man whose line about more effective ways than building a stadium for boosting your city’s economy gave the documentary its title), and me. Rent it here on Vimeo if you want some substitute fireworks this weekend.
  • Opponents of the publicly funded minor-league hockey arena for the Henderson Silver Knights got enough signatures to put a recall on the November ballot, but have had their petitions invalidated for not including a detailed enough description of their objections on every page. This will almost certainly result in lawsuits, which is how pretty much every battle for public oversight of sports subsidy deals ends — that, and “in tears.”
  • The San Diego city council approved the $86.2 million sale of the site of the Chargers‘ former stadium to San Diego State University, which plans to build a new $310 million football stadium there. Whether this is a good deal for the public is especially tricky, because not only do you have to figure the land value of a 135-acre site in the middle of an economic meltdown, but also San Diego State is a public university, so really this is one public agency selling land to another. It’s all more than I can manage this morning, so instead let’s look at this rendering of a proposed park for the site that features bicyclists riding diagonally across a bike path to avoid a woman who stands in their way with arms akimbo, while birds with bizarre forked tails wheel overhead.
  • You know what would be a terrible idea in the middle of a pandemic that has closed stadiums to fans because gathering in one place is a great way to spread virus? An article telling fans what public spaces they can gather in to catch a glimpse of game action in closed stadiums, and Axios has you covered there! And so does the Associated Press!
  • Sure, hundreds of thousands of people have died and there could be hundreds of thousands more to go, but won’t anyone think of the impact on TV network profits if there’s no football to show in the fall?
  • And speaking of keeping an eye strictly on the bottom line, the NFL is considering requiring fans (if there are any) who attend NFL games this fall (if there are any) to sign a waiver promising not to sue if they contract Covid as a result. But can I still sue if someone goes to a football game, contracts Covid, and then infects me? I’m not actually sure how easily one could sue in either case — since you can never be sure where you were infected with the virus, it would be like suing over getting cancer from secondhand smoke — but I always like the idea of suing the NFL, so thanks for the idea, guys!
  • New York Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner says he wants to see fans at Yankee Stadium “in the 20-30 percent range,” a number and prediction he failed to indicate he pulled from anywhere other than his own butt. Meanwhile, the Chicago Cubs are reportedly planning to open rooftops around Wrigley Field at 25% capacity for watching games this year, something that might actually be legal since while would mean about 800 fans in attendance, they wouldn’t all be in attendance in the same place, so it could get around rules about large public gatherings.
  • If you want to spend $49 and up so a cardboard cutout of yourself can watch Oakland A’s games, you can now do that on the team’s website. If that sounds like a terrible deal, know that with each purchase you also get two free tickets to an exhibition game at the Coliseum in 2021 (if there are any), and if you pay $129 then you also get a foul ball mailed to you if it hits your cutout, all of which still sounds like a terrible deal but significantly more hilarious.
  • If you were hoping to make one last trip to Pawtucket’s 74-year-old McCoy Stadium to see Pawtucket Red Sox baseball before the team relocates to Worcester after this season — it was on my now-deleted summer calendar — you’ll have to settle for eating dinner on the field, because the PawSox season, along with the rest of the minor-league baseball season, has been officially called off. Also, the Boston Herald reports that the Lowell Spinners single-A team won’t be offering refunds to those who bought tickets for non-canceled games, only credits toward 2021 tickets — shouldn’t ticketholders be able to sue for not receiving the product they paid for? I want somebody to sue somebody, already! When will America’s true pastime be allowed to reopen?
  • Here’s a New York Times article on how new MLS stadiums are bucking past stadium trends by being “privately financed, with modest public support for modernizing infrastructure,” which is only true if you consider $98 million (Columbus) and $81 million and up (Cincinnati) to be “modest” figures.
  • I apologize for failing to report last week on the Anaheim Ducks‘ proposed development around their hockey arena, less because it’s super interesting or there is amusing vaportecture than because it’s supposed to be called “ocV!BE,” which is the best name ever, so long as you want to live in a freshly built condo in what sounds like either a randomly generated password or an Aughts rock band.
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Friday roundup: Ohio could cut stadium funds, A’s could delay stadium plans, sports could return, world could end, anything’s possible

A little distracted this morning with a new work project and the usual pandemic stuff and the not-so-usual riots on TV, but there’s a passel of stadium and arena news I didn’t get to, so let’s get to ’em:

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The Columbus Crew are here to cure your pandemic doldrums with fresh bonkers vaportecture

I know that it’s rough out there, with the economy in freefall, and much of the U.S. still seeing rising Covid case numbers even as governors (and judges) tell businesses they can reopen, and Netflix starting to run out of TV shows to keep us distracted. So I could not be more pleased to report that the Columbus Crew have got our backs with some brand-new vaportecture renderings of what their new stadium will (probably, maybe, almost assuredly not) look like when it opens next year, if there is a next year:

This shot is weirdly underlit, so it’s hard to tell exactly what all these late-arriving fans are carrying into the arena: U.S. flags? Liberian flags? There does appear to be at least one yellow-and-black striped Crew flag for sale that bears a passing resemblance to the American flag, but it doesn’t appear to be the most popular design, so maybe the renderers thought they could get away with some U.S. flag clip art and no one would notice if the scene was dark enough? Also, what’s up with the giant soccer ball hovering over the people on the sidewalk? If that’s a balloon, they’re not going to be allowed to bring it into the stadium and obstruct their fellow fans’ views, are they?

Moving on:

Just a bunch of soccer fans suspended midair along a drink rail while outside a spatially distorted pedicab cuts across traffic to prepare to mow down unsuspecting pedestrians, nothing to see here!

We’re all used to seeing all kinds of things added to the air above stadium renderings — fireworks, mostly — but this is the first time I can recall seeing a flock of birds. Do we think someone actually put those in to enhance the attractiveness of the image, or did they just find “flock of birds” in some pulldown menu and figured they might as well use it somewhere, if only to justify claiming the clip art expansion pack as a business expense?

This is a normal enough soccer scene — players contesting a ball, smoke bombs going off in the supporters’ section — unless you actually pay attention to the soccer. Number 6, mark your man! Somebody on the navy blue team, get open for a cross! And where’s the keeper? Was he so confused by the fact that the touchline wasn’t laid out at a 90-degree angle that he couldn’t figure out where to stand? Was he mowed down by a rogue pedicab? So many questions.

Now there’s some fireworks! Plus people pointing randomly at the sky and holding up scarves, because you know that’s what vaporfans love to do.

Feel better now? I sure do! MLS may be busy with wacky schemes to put up all 26 teams in Orlando for a summer tournament, but vaporsoccer is alive and well and, if those ecstatic fans are any indication, way more entertaining.

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Friday roundup: How Kansas City evicted a team for rent non-payment and ended up costing itself $1m, and other stories

This week’s recommended reading: Girl to City, Amy Rigby’s just-published memoir of the two decades that took her from newly arrived art student in 1970s New York to divorced single mom and creator of the acclaimed debut album Diary of a Mod Housewife. (Disclosure, I guess: I edited an early version of one chapter for the Village Voice last year.) I picked up my copy last week at the launch of Rigby’s fall book tour, and whether you love her music or her long-running blog (guilty as charged on both counts) or enjoy tales of CBGB-era proto-gentrifying New York or coming-of-age-stories about women balancing self-doubt and determination or just a perfectly turned punchline, I highly recommend it: Like her best songs, it made me laugh and cry and think, often at the same time, and that’s all I can ask for in great art.

But first, read this news roundup post, because man, is there a lot of news to be rounded up:

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Friday roundup: Team owners rework tax bills and leases, Twins CEO claims team is winning (?) thanks to new stadium, and other privileges of the very rich

Tons more stadium and arena news to get to this week, so let’s dive right in without preamble:

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Columbus hid $48m in Crew stadium subsidies in “Other Projects” budget

For some somewhat better journalism, let’s head over to Columbus, Ohio, where the Columbus Dispatch reports that the $50 million the city had promised toward a new Crew soccer stadium will actually amount to nearly twice that, thanks to a secret second budget:

Starting early this year, as city department heads planned for the stadium, documents show they didn’t have one budget, but two: costs included in the $50 million and those outside of it, spread across various departmental budgets and funding sources…

In one spreadsheet circulated among city officials in March titled “Updated Project Budget and Timeline,” City Auditor Megan Kilgore tallied up what at the time were the project costs — almost $98 million, split between two “buckets”: ”$50 million” and “Other Projects.”

“This is our best effort at keeping track of projects,” Kilgore said in the March email to which she attached the spreadsheet. “The above will dictate how we continue to push expenditures that EXCEED the above amounts into the ‘Other Projects — outside of $50 million bucket’ pot.”

The “Other Projects” budget includes such items as building a 600-car parking garage for the stadium and moving electrical lines underground, items that a city spokesperson insisted would be happening with or without the stadium. (Burying the electrical lines, for example, has been assigned to the costs of a Chipotle Mexican Grill headquarters a half-mile away.)

This is all some great reporting that required digging through piles of public records requests, and could have been improved only by including the total public cost of the project to city and county taxpayers: The Dispatch itself previously reported this as $140 million plus land costs, and while I got $130 million with my adding machine, this would still mean the total public cost of the project is now more like $178 million. Or, if you prefer, $130 million, plus $48 million for a really vital Chipotle headquarters.

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Public cost of Columbus Crew stadium keeps rising, public revenue share still at zero

One of the most confusing parts of calculating stadium subsidy costs is accounting for the present value of future expenses: It’s how F.C. Cincinnati‘s $213 million in taxpayer largesse is really more like $81 million once you factor in that a lot of the spending doesn’t need to take place for decades.

(Note, by the way, that this isn’t directly about inflation: Even if inflation were zero, a dollar spent 30 years from now would still be less of a cost than a dollar spent now, simply because you can put a fraction of a dollar in the bank now and end up with a dollar in three decades.)

Anyway, all of this is to say that when the Columbus Dispatch reports that the public cost of the new Columbus Crew stadium has risen from $115 million to $140 million, it’s important to determine whether this requires an asterisk, if some of that cost is in the future. My previous calculation of the present-value public cost was $88 million; the new total is, per the Dispatch:

  • $28 million in cash payments from the city of Columbus, plus $12 million to build a new public sports park.
  • A county contribution of $2.5 million a year for 30 years, which comes to $45 million in present value.
  • A state contribution of $20 million.
  • $25 million in property taxes that will be diverted to the stadium.
  • ???????? for purchasing the stadium land, which is supposed to be figured out by August 15, though that deadline could be extended.

The Dispatch actually seems to have done a good job of accounting for present value, but unless I’m missing something, they’ve done a less good job on addition: $40 million + $45 million + $20 million + $25 million = $130 million, not $140 million. Which isn’t to say the public cost won’t reach $140 million — the public land costs could easily drive it that high — but it seems like the current price tag should be “$130 million plus land,” so that’s what I’m going with.

The Crew, meanwhile, would according to the Dispatch “market, control and have the rights to all revenue from the new stadium,” including naming rights, paying just $10 a year in rent. You might think that with the public putting up about half the cost of the building, they should get something like half the revenues — but if so you clearly haven’t read the subtitle of the book that launched this website. Silly you!

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Columbus Crew stadium opening delayed, team exec says it’ll still be great in indescribable ways

The Columbus Crew‘s new downtown stadium, which is getting $90 million or so in cash grants and tax breaks to replace the Crew’s 20-year-old non-downtown stadium, now won’t open until at the earliest July 2021, instead of at the start of the 2021 season, because reasons. (“Some paperwork needs to be finished,” according to the Columbus Dispatch.) Which is maybe interesting to diehard MLS fans, but far more interesting to me is what team president Tim Bezbatchenko said about the new stadium’s impact when it finally does open:

″[The stadium is] going to change the trajectory of this club forever,” Bezbatchenko said. “There’s going to be so many ancillary positive consequences to this that you can’t even approximate and can’t guess about in terms of the culture change that the fans are going to go through.”

That is a lot of buzzy words; let’s attempt to unpack them:

  • Change the trajectory of this club forever: This sounds like a vague promise that the Crew will stop losing quite so many games once they get a new stadium, which is questionable in any sport, but doubly so in one with a single-entity ownership model where team owners don’t get to plow profits directly back into improving the club.
  • So many ancillary positive consequences to this that you can’t even approximate: “Ancillary” means “subordinate” or “supplementary,” so here Bezbatchenko is presumably talking about things outside of actually playing and watching soccer. Or not talking about them, as the case may be, since he says he can’t even begin to guess about them! Though there will be very many of them, of that he is sure!
  • The culture change that the fans are going to go through: “Culture change” is one of those terms that business management types love to throw around, and here is presumably a reference to the shift to a more urban location. How exactly that would significantly change things from the “drive to game, watch game, drive home” model isn’t entirely clear — Columbus is famously the largest American city without a rail transit system — but again, clearly it’ll be yuge!

All of these would have been outstanding followup questions for the Dispatch, or really for any other reporters interested in reporting and not just taking stenography. It really can’t be overstated how much the functioning of anything like a democratic system depends on robust media outlets to shed light on what’s going on. In the absence of that, we just get a whole lot of press releases, and I guess comment sections of people complaining about the press releases, which is okay but not precisely the same thing. So if you have a local (or even non-local) media outlet that is doing a decent job, please send them some money, because just imagine what it would be like if news coverage got even worse than it is already.

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