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:

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:

Unnamed “backers” want Islanders arena to lead to redeveloping Aqueduct with casinos and other crap

The New York Islanders‘ new arena at Belmont Park — or The Stable, as some people on Twitter are already trying to get you to call it, which must make the people in charge of selling its official naming rights just thrilled beyond belief — won’t open until 2021 at the earliest even if it survives its multiple legal challenges, but that doesn’t mean its too soon to start planning how it will become the linchpin of a massive strategy to close Aqueduct Racetrack to horse racing and build new casinos and maybe other development there. Allow Newsday to explain:

Redevelopment backers have a grand vision of Belmont becoming a “sports destination” that goes like this:

• Consolidate downstate horse racing by ending it at Aqueduct Race Track in Queens, and moving all racing to Belmont. Then promote Belmont as a destination with hockey, horses, hotels and shopping.

• Authorize three new downstate casinos by 2023, or sooner.

• Allow Aqueduct, which already rakes in money from thousands of video slot machines, to become a full-fledged casino, and maybe do the same for Yonkers Raceway.

• Consider selling to developers the acreage at the sprawling Aqueduct facility that won’t be part of a casino. The state owns the land and the horse racing business is just a tenant.

All of which makes some sense, even if the only “redevelopment backer” actually named is the Long Island Association, a business lobbying group: Horse racing isn’t exactly a thriving pastime, and Aqueduct is potentially valuable property, though whether state-run casinos are really the best use of it is extremely arguable.

More to the point, though: What does any of this have to do with a new arena at Belmont? I am far from an expert on horse racing (I owned a horse racing board game at around age 10, I recall), but it seems to me that if Aqueduct and Belmont’s racing schedules can be merged effectively, that can happen with or without a hockey arena next door. The new train station that the Islanders’ developer group is helping to pay for but absolutely not paying for without taxpayer money should help, sure, but is it really vital to the plans, or just a way for these Aqueduct redevelopment advocates, whoever they are, to get the attention of Newsday?

And speaking of which, how did this article end up in Newsday anyway, given that it seems to be just the grand vision of one business-lobby spokesperson accompanied by a bunch of reaction quotes from local elected officials? There’s definitely something happening here, but what it is and who’s pushing it still ain’t exactly clear.

Friday roundup: Lots more fans showing up disguised as empty seats

Is public financing of sports venues worth it? If you’ve been noticing a bit of a dip in the frequency of posts on this site over the past few months, it’s not your imagination: I had a contract job as a fill-in news editor that was taking up a lot of my otherwise FoS-focused mornings. That job has run its course now, which should make it a bit easier to keep up with stadium and arena news on a daily basis going forward, instead of leaving much of it to week-ending wrapups.

That said, you all do seem to love your week-ending wrapups, so here’s one now:

How a falsehood becomes a fact (New York Islanders groundbreaking division)

The New York Islanders owners held a groundbreaking for their new arena yesterday as promised, and because this mostly meant a bunch of politicians (and Ralph Macchio) scooping ceremonial dirt with shovels with hockey-stick handles, many publications sensibly enough chose to skip the event and instead run wire service copy from the Associated Press.

Unfortunately, the unnamed AP reporter wrote this:

As part of the work, developers have agreed to pay to build a new Long Island Rail Road station nearby.

No. No, they have not. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo may have claimed this in a press release, but state officials later revealed that the developers are putting in $30 million up front and the state $75 million, with the developers additionally making $67 million in payments, without interest, to the state over the next 30 years. How much of a subsidy that is depends on how you calculate the discount rate on future payments — I previously got a figure of about $41 million in state costs — but clearly this train station will be costing state taxpayers something, even if the developers will eventually pay for most of its price tag. (Assuming there are no significant cost overruns, anyway.)

Now, this may seem trivial: Does it really matter if newspapers report that developers “have agreed to pay to build” a new train station or “have agreed to help pay to build”? But yeah, it really does. Because the way that fact-checking works in journalism today — to the degree that journalism conducts fact-checking at all — you’re just checking to see that some other news outlet has reported the claim in question, and then you can mark it as confirmed. And so a falsehood can become an officially confirmed fact, for all time.

I’ve contacted the AP asking for a correction; I’ll update this post if I get a response. Meanwhile, at least a few outlets didn’t use the AP story, such as CBS New York, which had this to report on the governor’s statements:

“A new transportation terminal, a great economic development vehicle and a great new sports stadium. Three things all together in one project. The technical term for that is that is a hat trick, my friends. Congratulations,” Cuomo said.

No, a hat trick is when you get three of the same thing. Getting three different things is a trifecta. Jeez, people, do I have to do everything around here?

Islanders arena to break ground today right after getting hit with second lawsuit charging it’s illegal

A groundbreaking is expected to be held today for the planned $1.3 billion New York Islanders arena project at Belmont Park, and the team celebrated on Saturday by getting hit with its second lawsuit challenging the project’s legality.

The previous lawsuit, you’ll recall was filed by the neighboring village of Floral Park, and charged that the bidding for the site was skewed toward the arena developers and that the environmental impact study was insufficient. The new lawsuit, filed by a bunch of community groups in neighboring Elmont, doubles up on claims that the EIS is faulty, while adding that the state Empire State Development agency shouldn’t be allowed to conduct the project at all because it’s only allowed to arrange for the development of blighted properties, and Elmont isn’t blighted:

“In order to use the UDC Act you have to have the prerequisite of blight,” [Elmont civic leader Aubrey] Phillips said. “Over the years, Elmont has been the brunt of mischaracterization. It is totally inconsistent with statistics. Elmont is a firm middle-class community.”

Argument #2 first: It’s absolutely true that the UDC Act only authorizes ESD (the descendent of the 1960s-era Urban Development Corporation) to act on blighted property. It’s also true, however, that courts have let the state define “blighted” as pretty much anything it wants — just take a look at the Islanders’ current home, the similarly ESD-masterminded Barclays Center in Brooklyn, where the state agency fulfilled a requirement that the project target a high unemployment area by creating a gerrymandered district weaving for over a mile through different neighborhoods which journalism Norman Oder dubbed the “Bed-Stuy Boomerang.” So while it may or may not be “wrong” or “illegal,” this sort of thing is definitely standard practice for New York development agencies.

As for the EIS complaint, the new suit charged that the state’s study “did not properly address major issues like traffic, ‘cumulative impacts’ and the safety of local residents,” according to Long Island Business News. Again, you can make this case — as the previous suit noted, the state’s traffic and transit analysis was written before the state even added in plans for a new commuter rail station near the arena, with shuttle buses to take fans from there to games — but the number of lawsuits trying to overturn EISes as insufficient are few and far between, in New York, anyway.

The plaintiffs in this suit have former New York Civil Liberties Union director Norman Siegel as their attorney, and he previously represented Brooklyn residents in their years-long but ultimately fruitless battle against the arena project there, so I guess at least he knows what not to do? Predicting lawsuit results is almost as hopeless a task as predicting sports results; let’s just call this an “uphill battle” and leave it there.

 

First lawsuit is filed against Islanders arena, charging rigged bid and invalid environmental study

With the New York Islanders arena plan having received final state approval last month, the Belmont Park project is now facing the first of several lawsuits, as promised:

The Village of Floral Park has filed suit against the state to block the $1.3 billion redevelopment of Belmont Park, including the new arena for the New York Islanders, ahead of a ceremonial groundbreaking on the property expected this month.

The Article 78 proceeding, a lawsuit against a municipality, asks a judge to overturn all approvals of the project, stop construction on the site and restart the environmental review process, according to documents filed in state Supreme Court in Mineola.

Floral Park’s complaint is twofold: First, that the public bidding process was rigged because the state had already received plans for a hockey arena at the site; second, that the environmental review didn’t fully study the impact of a new Long Island Rail Road station planned to service the arena. And while the first may seem, as the Wii soccer announcer likes to tell me whenever I try a shot from midfield, “speculative to say the least,” the latter sounds pretty reasonable, at least in IANAL terms, considering that the train station plan wasn’t even released by Gov. Andrew Cuomo until the day the final environmental impact statement was being voted on.

Lawsuits to block development projects are always longshots given that developers can afford the best lawyers, among other things, but even longshots sometimes win, so we’ll see how this goes. My question: If they end up losing, will the developers have to re-plant the trees they already chopped down?

Friday roundup: When is a football stadium too old to be a football stadium?

If it wasn’t clear from the photos of devastation in the Bahamas, the death toll from Hurricane Dorian is going to get much, much worse than the official confirmed number (30, at this writing). You can find a list of some organizations raising money to help survivors here; please give generously if you can. And remember as you do that it’s the warming oceans that helped make this so bad.

And with that, on to news that’s marginally less life and death:

  • Denver Metropolitan Football Stadium District chair Ray Baker says the Broncos‘ current stadium (which just got a new corporate name, go keep track of these things on your own if you like because I can’t be bothered to remember them) should last “between 50 and 60 years,” at which point Broncos president Joe Ellis replied that “I can’t judge where entertainment venues are going to need to be in the future” and “I can’t tell you whether or not, in 10 years, the city of Denver and our seven-county region has an appetite to host a Super Bowl or an appetite to host a Final Four, which means you need a roof. Or do you need a new stadium?” The new naming-rights deal lasts 21 years, at which point the stadium will be 40 years old; please place your bets on whether it will still be standing by then.
  • RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., will not make it to its 60th birthday in October 2021, which is all well and good as nobody plays there now and it’s costing the city $3.5 million a year for maintenance, landscaping, pest control, security, and utilities. (Note: Yeah, that seems like a lot to me too for an empty stadium.) D.C. officials say they plan to build an indoor sports complex and food market on the site, but have no plans as yet for an NFL stadium, no matter how much Mayor Muriel Bowser might want one.
  • Cleveland Browns COO David Jenkins says team execs still haven’t decided whether to demand a new stadium or a renovated one, but “we’re not far from having those conversations.” Note to Denver: The Browns’ stadium is two years older than the Broncos’.
  • Forbes reports that the value of the Oakland Raiders jumped by $1.5 billion to $2.9 billion after announcing their move to Las Vegas, which is an indication that either there’s something wrong with Forbes’ franchise valuation estimates or there’s something wrong with how much rich people are willing to spend to buy sports teams, or both. Even with the state of Nevada kicking in $750 million, the team will still be on the hook for more than $1 billion in stadium construction costs, which is going to soak up most of the team’s new stadium revenue even if their plan to sell tickets mostly to tourists and visiting fans works out.
  • The Anaheim city council is still squabbling over who knew when that when they voted on a Los Angeles Angels lease extension back in January, they were actually giving team owner Arte Moreno the right to stay through 2029 if he wanted, not just until 2020. (The team owner got a one-year extension of his opt-out clause as well, but the lease is now back in place to its original expiration date set before Moreno opted out the first time last year.) One thing that’s for sure is that this was a major gift to Moreno as stadium renovation talks continue, because “the best friend of a sports team owner is time,” says, uh, me.
  • A bill making it easier for Oakland to create tax districts at Howard Terminal to help raise money for infrastructure for a new A’s stadium passed the California state legislature this week; it’s still unclear exactly how much tax money would be spent on infrastructure, or exactly what “infrastructure” would mean, or even if the stadium will be built at Howard Terminal at all, but that’s one more skid greased, anyway.
  • The new Long Island Railroad station outside the new New York Islanders arena is set to be open by 2022, which only about 90 years faster than these things usually go in New York. It helps to have friends in high places!

 

Friday roundup: News outlets everywhere get pretty much everything wrong

On a tight deadline this week, so let’s get straight to the news:

County approves $125m tax gift to Carolina Hurricanes, city approval next up

Wake County, North Carolina yesterday approved $46.6 million a year in tourism tax spending — money from a 6% hotel tax and 1% restaurant tax imposed in 1991 — and the beneficiaries are set to include the Carolina Hurricanes and the Raleigh Convention Center, though not yet a proposed Raleigh soccer stadium:

  • The Hurricanes would get $9 million a year in tax money for the next 25 years, a present value of about $125 million. The NHL franchise has been looking at an arena renovation cost of up to $200 million, so this would pay for the bulk of that.
  • The convention center would get $3 million a year for maintenance, $2.2 million a year for parking and infrastructure, $19 million flat fee for renovations and new land acquisition, and $17.575 million a year starting in the mid-2020s for an expansion and new music venue.
  • The North Carolina FC USL team didn’t get its proposed $11 million a year stadium grant, but can still apply for part of the remaining funds, where it would compete against other arts groups.

I know that some of you are thinking about now, “But isn’t the whole point of a tourism tax to promote tourism, so the tax money should be spent on things that will bring tourists to town?” Sure, but then it’s important to ensure that the spending will bring tourists to town, and the return on sports and convention spending is historically really awful in that regard: Sports teams only bring in a tiny sliver of new spending compared to what they cost in subsidies, and conventions are equally dismal.

One solution, if you’re really determined to use tax dollars to encourage people to come to your town, would be to demand some kind of direct repayment from the beneficiaries: Sure, we’ll give you a pile of free cash, but then you need to share the resulting increased revenues with the public treasury. But that doesn’t appear to be what’s going on in Raleigh; rather, the Hurricanes and other operators will keep any windfall revenues, and local government will just sit back and hope that the rising tide lifts their fiscal boat as well.

This whole plan still needs to be signed off on by the city of Raleigh, but at this point it looks like all that’s left to decide is which private interests to funnel tax money to, not whether to do it at all. (It’s possible there are some ways that Wake County could use tourist tax dollars to displace other spending that would then be freed up for broader social goods like schools or whatever, as has been the case in other locales, but none of the coverage has addressed that.) If anyone was wondering why somebody would spend $420 million to buy an NHL team with attendance near the bottom of the league, you may have just gotten your answer.