Your Labor Day weekend reading: Cost to cities of losing teams, and Calgary’s art of the steal

If you’re looking for some light stadium-subsidy reading to make your blood boil over the last weekend of summer, there were a couple of good ones this week, and I don’t say that just because they quote me a lot:

  • Louis Bien at SBNation has a long piece up about the St. Louis Rams, San Diego Chargers, and Oakland Raiders threatening to move to L.A., and the cost on those teams’ fan bases. (I’m not honestly sure what the “you care too much” is about in the headline, as it doesn’t seem to have much to do with Bien’s actual article, but whatever.) Included is a long section on the dubious threat to cities’ well-being that team relocations actually pose, with my favorite line coming from Rick Eckstein of Public Dollars, Private Stadiums fame:

Quality of life improvements claimed by the franchise were “a load of crap,” Eckstein wrote to me. He continued: “Los Angeles has been doing just fine without football for the last decade; there has not been a mass exodus from Seattle after the Sonics left; the Long Island suburbs will not go vacant with the Islanders moving to Brooklyn, just as they survived the Nets leaving; Montreal has shown no ill effects after losing the Expos while the Nationals decidedly did NOT put DC ‘on the map.'”

  • Katie Baker in Grantland has an article that does a really cool thing, taking the “Art of the Steal” chapter from Field of Schemes (and subsequent “Art of the Steal Revisited” chapter from the expanded edition) and applying it specifically to the Calgary Flames owners’ arena demands. Best quote in the piece, though it’s not new and wasn’t particularly said about arena demands (it was about hockey lockouts), is from current Flames president Brian Burke when he worked for the Maple Leafs: “My theory is, make the first meeting as short and unpleasant as possible. Sometimes it’s better to just punch the guy in the face.” Not sure if demanding at least $490 million in taxpayer cash while claiming this would be for the public good quite qualifies as a punch in the face, but it’s pretty close!

Poll finds Calgary residents don’t want to spend public money on Flames arena, are confused by polls

A poll of Calgary residents by Mainstreet Research and the Calgary Herald finds people like new things, but don’t like to pay for them. Also, they will answer lots of contradictory things if a poll asks them contradictory questions.

To the specifics of the poll on the $890 million or maybe really $1.2 billion Flames and Stampeders stadium/arena/floor wax plan:

Do you think the Scotiabank Saddledome, current home of the Calgary Flames & Calgary Roughnecks, needs to be replaced? 32% replaced, 27% renovated, 23% leave as is, 17% not sure.

Do you think McMahon Stadium, current home of the Calgary Stampeders, needs to be replaced? 35% replaced, 32% renovated, 19% leave as is, 14% not sure.

That indicates that a majority (50-32% for the arena, 51-35% for the stadium) of Calgary residents think the existing arenas shouldn’t be replaced. Clear enough, right?

Do you agree or disagree with the following: a proposal to build a new arena, stadium, and field house is good for the city. 30% strongly agree, 25% somewhat agree, 13% somewhat disagree, 18% strongly disagree, 14% neither agree nor disagree.

What the.

Thinking about everything you have seen or heard about Calgary Next, do you support the project or oppose the project? 19% strongly support, 20% somewhat support, 20% somewhat oppose, 14% strongly oppose, 26% neither support nor oppose.

Okay, so people don’t think the existing stadium and arena should be replaced, but do think a new stadium and arena would be good for the city, and aren’t sure whether they support or oppose the project. I guess given the first two, the last one shouldn’t be all that surprising, but that’s a lot of cognitive dissonance there.

What else we got? Oh, right, no one has asked yet about paying for it.

As proposed, funding would come from the following sources. $200 million from the Flames ownership group; $200 million from the city for the municipal field house; $250 million from a ticket tax on users, and the remaining $240 million would come from a community revitalization levy with governments giving up or postponing future tax revenue. Do you support this financing model? 19% yes, 49% no, 33% not sure.

Even taking into account that very large “not sure” (of which I’m sure a large percentage actually represents “Whaaaaaaa? Can you say that again slowly?”), that’s a significant sentiment in opposition to putting up $490 million in public tax money. (Though the way the question is phrased, I suppose it’s possible that some people are upset that the public wouldn’t be putting in more tax money. Possible, but unlikely.)

In your view, how should CalgaryNext be funded? 45% Flames ownership, 40% Flames and government, 15% not sure.

Okay, that seems to indicate that a plurality of poll respondents don’t want any public money used for this.

As polls go, this is a hot mess, and if it indicates anything, indicates that people simultaneously believe everything they are being told about the stadium+arena project. (It’d be good for the city! We don’t need it! We don’t want to pay for it!) Perhaps somebody (*cough cough Calgary Herald*) could be doing a better job of explaining it, so people could come up with some non-contradictory opinions?

Anyway, enough with the public — what does the Calgary city council think of the proposal?

Ward 4 Coun. Sean Chu said he agrees with the 49 per cent of poll respondents who oppose the proposal’s financing model.

“I’m always of the opinion the taxpayers’ dollar should not be supporting any professional sport,” he said.

“From what I’ve heard, people are unanimously saying no tax dollars for this project.”

But Coun. Evan Woolley, who represents the area where the complex would be built, said despite the poll indicating many are opposed to spending public money on the megaproject, it may be exactly what the city needs.

“We have a downturn in the economy and we have an opportunity to build something that will diversify our economy,” he said.

This is going to be a long debate.

Flames CEO says Calgary making it hard on prophets (no, not profits, through radio, so maybe)

Calgary Flames CEO Ken King went on TSN 1050 radio in Toronto yesterday (sorry, don’t know where it’s archived) to talk about his $890 million Frankenstadium plan, and got in some quality whining about how he’s not appreciated enough for being willing to put up half the cost of a project for his own team’s benefit:

“It’s funny, if you get off a plane from New York or London or Paris and said, hey, I’ve got $550 million and I’m kind of interested in your city and I’m kind of interested in doing a project, people would be falling over themselves. Please, please come here. But it seems in sports it’s difficult to be a prophet in your own country.”

I … don’t think that’s actually true that out-of-towners get automatically lavished with property-tax kickbacks and cash from the city treasury and money to clean up polluted sites, at least not any more than in-towners do. But it’s always nice to lead with complaining that no one loves you enough for your money.

And speaking of those property-tax kickbacks — what would be called tax increment financing (TIF) in the U.S., and is a community revitalization levy (CRL) in Canada — King confirmed that these wouldn’t be just taxes on the stadiarena, but on all the development that would theoretically take place around it:

“There will be office towers, condos – just like stuff between Air Canada Centre and Rogers Centre – that will be built. A portion of the taxes from those – a portion – for a period of time will be used to finance the project. By the way, those are taxes that don’t exist if we don’t do this.”

This is the age-old argument for TIFs, and it has a gaping logical hole: If there’s actually demand for office towers and condos, then they’ll be built somewhere in your city, with or without a new sports venue. (Unless you think people will suddenly flock to Calgary to buy condos the minute the Stampeders are playing in a new stadium instead of an old one, which, uh, yeah.) Which means that you end up with the same amount of overall development, but the city suddenly not getting new property tax revenue to pay for all the things that are needed to support an expanding city.

This is exactly what happened with runaway TIFs in Chicago, as discussed this week on the penultimate episode of KUCI’s Heather McCoy Show. (Last episode this Tuesday! Tune in to hear if Heather can top Jon Stewart’s Daily Show farewell!) It’s really nice to think that there could be a perpetual motion machine that could use tax money to pay for things without it costing anybody anything — really nice if you have $550 million in your pocket and want $500 million more from the public, that is — but Calgary might want to check on how well it’s actually worked in practice first, just in case.

Calgary columnists: Flames won’t move without new arena, we need new arena to stop Flames from moving!

The arguments for spending as much as half a billion public loonies on a new Calgary Flames arena are rolling in, and they are, um, creative:

  • Beneath the headline “The economic case for CalgaryNEXT,” the Calgary Herald’s Deborah Yedlin argues that building a combination Flames arena/Stampeders stadium is necessary to keep the “creative class” (read: young professionals) in town. Her entire evidence: one “young lad” who moved back to Calgary “because of the business opportunities that exist here.”
  • Over in the Calgary Sun, columnist Michael Platt skips even the slimmest of economic arguments, and goes right for the heartstrings, with the story of an eight-year-old boy who died in 2012 after a battle with brain cancer, and to whom the Flames meant “happiness.”

The notion that sports teams draw residents who help boost the local economy is a venerable trope by now, but it’s entirely unsupported by evidence: Studies show that cities with sports teams don’t grow any faster than those without. (For that matter, Yedlin’s warning that without sports Calgary would turn into Buffalo is a bit bizarre, given that Buffalo has teams in the exact same two sports — hockey and football — as Calgary does.) And when business leaders in particular are asked why they choose to locate in one city over another, sports teams are way down the list, with such things as good schools and transportation infrastructure at the top — which kind of makes one think that it would be more worthwhile to spend public money on trains and schools instead of stadiums, if anything.

As for the happiness of dead children, Platt indulges in even more bizarre turns of logic. Check this out:

The truly cynical will say the script always ends with the team threatening to move, before public cash is inevitably granted — but in this case, there’s not even a hint of such posturing, and the Flames actually have a plan that offers a lot of public benefit for the public money spent.

That includes the development of the creosote-polluted west end, and a bunch of new sporting facilities for use by the public, plus the likelihood of major concerts and sporting events.

But beyond that, there’s the benefit of having the Flames.

Follow that? The Flames aren’t threatening to leave without a new arena, but let’s stop to consider what it would mean if the Flames left. With friends like these, who needs move threats?

Back in the non-pundit world, Alberta premier Rachel Notley was decidedly unenthused by the Flames’ request for an indeterminate amount of provincial funding to help clean up pollution at the proposed arena-stadium site, saying, “There are many, many capital requests and the well is, quite frankly, only so deep,” though she added that “if we get a request, we will consider it, like we would consider any other request.” That was enough to get Edmonton officials to say that if Calgary gets any provincial money for its arena, they want some too for the already-underway Oilers arena. This seems likely to be a door that Notley is not going to want to open — who knows what Lethbridge and Red Deer would ask for? — but as with everything else here, we’re just going to have to wait and see what’s just posturing and what’s actual policy.

Flames owner proposes $890m hockey-football Frankendome, seeks at least $490m in public cash

Calgary Flames owner CEO Ken King issued his long, long awaited arena plan yesterday, and it’s a doozy: a hockey arena sutured to a football stadium for the CFL’s Stampeders, which would also double as a soccer stadium and “field house” for amateur sports. Total cost: $890 million, of which the public would cover — well, we’ll get to that in a minute. In the meantime, crazy-ass renderings!

calgary_next2A long while back, I started referring to stadium projects with a passel of other things thrown in (mixed-use development! a convention center!) as “kitchen sink projects,” because they include everything including that in an attempt to play hide-the-subsidy in a giant pile of financial paperwork. King’s proposal includes a whopping big kitchen sink in the form of that “fieldhouse,” which allows him to claim that it’s a public benefit, even though the biggest beneficiaries would clearly be the Stampeders, which he just happens to own as well.

As for how the $890 million cost would be paid for, in true kitchen-sink tradition, it’s as confusing as possible:

It’s proposed the $890-million cost would be paid from four sources — a $240-million community revitalization levy, a $250-million ticket tax, $200 million from the city to fund the field house (long a priority on the city’s recreation list) and a $200-million contribution from the Flames’ ownership group.

That “community revitalization levy” would come from kicked-back property taxes, and is effectively the Canadian version of tax increment financing — it’s the same revenue stream the Edmonton Oilers used to raise public money for their arena. Meanwhile, the $200 million for the field house/Stampeders stadium doesn’t appear to have a source attached to it at all, beyond “Hey, you guys said the city needs a field house, you figure out how to pay for it.”

The proposed site for this monstrosity also requires between $50 million and $300 million in cleanup because it was formerly the site of a creosote plant — no, not this kind of plant, this kind — which would be paid for by, um:

King said it will take a group effort to clean up the land and that he wants to get all levels of government involved.

In other words, Not Me.

So that’s somewhere between $490 million and $740 million in public cash, in exchange for which Calgary taxpayers would get to use the football stadium an undetermined number of days a year for an undetermined bunch of sportsy things. King’s announcement came while Mayor Naheed Nenshi was on vacation — what an incredible coincidence! — so it was left to deputy mayor Diane Colley-Urquhart to reply:

“We don’t build great cities by saying, ‘we have no money.’”

Um, you might have wanted to check with your boss before saying that:

Mayor Naheed Nenshi called the proposal “intriguing,” but said challenges exist that must be addressed.

There are very significant requirements for public funding beyond the field house funding, and there is currently no money,” Nenshi, who is on vacation, said in a statement.

Nenshi certainly seemed to leave the door open for discussion, but as he’s also been adamant that he won’t spend public money if there isn’t an equal public benefit — and that $240 million in CRL funding would go straight down a King-sized hole as far as the city is concerned — this still promises to be an epic throwdown. There’s also still lots we don’t know about King’s plan — his snazzy CalgaryNEXT website doesn’t say squat about who would cover maintenance and operations costs, who would get revenues from events like soccer games at the stadium, or all kinds of other important details. Settle down for a long one, because we are almost certainly going to be talking about King’s Frankendome for months if not years to come.

Flames owner announces soft launch of arena plan, hopes no one asks about price tag

Calgary Flames owner Ken King has arena plans in the works! How do we know? He sent a cryptic email to season ticketholders:

CMOi7xlUcAEVN46Also, he started a new Twitter account!

Presumably this is going to be something along the lines of the arena plus CFL stadium plus amateur sports fieldhouse that King hinted at back in the spring. Also presumably, he’s doing it this way (sneak preview for ticketholders, no formal details) to try to build enthusiasm for the project without giving Mayor Naheed Nenshi anything formal to respond to with a “No, you can’t have any public money.” It’s a difficult gambit — at some point King has to come clean about what kind of subsidies he’s asking for, and from all indications Nenshi is too sharp to just hand over cash once he sees something shiny — but “show off the merchandise first, talk price tag later” is a time-honored sales tradition, so it’s not all that surprising.

Glendale gets Coyotes to agree to two-year lease that’s slightly less sucktastic than old one

That was quick: Just six weeks after the city of Glendale acted to terminate the Arizona Coyotes‘ sweetheart lease, the two sides arrived at a revised deal yesterday. Okay, it’s only a deal for a new lease for the next two years, but given that just last month everybody was all lawsuits and vitriol, that’s still impressive.

The old deal, to recap, involved Glendale paying the Coyotes owners $15 million a year for each of the next 15 years, for the privilege of having the NHL team bless the city’s publicly built arena with its presence. (And operate the arena, something that the Coyotes owners insist is worth a ton of money, though others disagree.) In exchange, the city was getting back about $6.7 million a year in ticket taxes, parking revenues, rent, and other sundries, leaving it about $8 million a year in the hole. And while the city couldn’t back out (until it found a loophole that let it do so), the team could break the lease and leave (or renegotiate) at any point.

The new deal breaks down like this:

  • Instead of $15 million a year, Glendale pays the Coyotes owners only $6.5 million a year.
  • The Coyotes owners keep all ticket surcharges and parking fees, which the Globe and Mail says will be worth about $6 million a year, though I had it at more like $5.4 million.
  • The new lease only lasts until summer of 2017, after which everyone has to figure this out all over again.

If you can do simple math — which isn’t me this morning after staying out late at this, but I’m going to give it a shot anyway — Glendale just saved about $5 million over the next two years, plus got out of another 11 years of commitment to those $15 million a year payments. So that’s something!

On the other hand, this mostly just kicks the can down the road to 2017, which has some advantages for Coyotes owner Anthony LeBlanc: The NHL expansion situation should be resolved by then, and there should be more clarity on whether a new arena is likely in Seattle, allowing LeBlanc to level a more fleshed-out move threat then if he wants. Also, Glendale has mayoral and council elections in 2016, so LeBlanc can always hold out hope of getting more amenable negotiating partners into City Hall by then.

On the other other hand, LeBlanc could have used his out clause to do that anyway, so at least current mayor Jerry Weiers and the current council (which is supposed to vote on the new plan this morning) got something out of breaking the lease. And the Coyotes will continue to have the league’s most entertaining ownership and arena saga for the foreseeable future, which is good, because for sure nobody wants to watch them do whatever they claim is playing hockey.

Vegas, Quebec now frontrunners for NHL expansion teams, because nobody else bothered to bid

Official bids to own an NHL expansion franchise (assuming the NHL actually expands) were due yesterday, and of the several motley candidates, only two ended up submitting an actual bid, along with a $2 million non-refundable deposit: The Bill Foley/Maloof brothers group in Las Vegas, and Canadian telecom company Quebecor in Quebec City.

If the neo-Quebec Nordiques and Las Vegas Black Knights (that’s seriously what they’re considering calling the team — one can only hope their team motto will be “Tis but a flesh wound!“) happen, it will be because the NHL thinks it can get $500 million apiece in expansion fees, which would be worth the roughly $20 million a year in TV revenues the other teams would have to give up to each of the new franchises. Neither city would be a guaranteed success — Quebec probably has a better shot, if only because people actually watch hockey there, but they’d both be among the NHL’s smallest markets — but then, if there were an obvious expansion market, it would already have a team by now.

There was one bigger market considering a bid, or actually two bids: Seattle, where both Chris Hansen and Ray Bartoszek were reportedly interested in teams for their prospective arenas in downtown Seattle and suburban Tukwila. Neither ended up bidding, though, which would leave Seattle looking at being the home for a relocated team at some point, assuming either Hansen or Bartoszek is really that interested in the NHL.

And that, ultimately, is what the NHL would be giving up here, even more than a sliver of TV revenues: leverage. Right now, cities undergoing arena battles face a slew of marginally believable bogeymen where their team could be said to be relocating to if they don’t agree to demands. If Vegas and Quebec get new teams, the league would pretty much be down to Seattle as a threat, and while one city will certainly suffice for this (look at what the NFL has done with L.A.), it’s less than ideal.

All of which is to say that Glendale officials should probably feel comfortable taking a hard line with the Arizona Coyotes owners in their lease battle. There’s reportedly been some progress in those talks, but if the worst-case scenario ends up being that the Coyotes might move back to a new arena in Phoenix, leaving that city stuck with how to keep afloat a money-losing franchise with subsidies, that’s the kind of chance that Glendale should feel comfortable taking.

UPDATE: Deadspin thinks that this is going to hurt the NHL’s leverage in getting the highest price for expansion teams, since now they can’t get a bidding war going. I’m less sure — the league can still refuse to assign any new teams at all if it doesn’t get what it wants — but this certainly doesn’t help the NHL’s racket, let’s put it that way.

Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch just wrote John Oliver’s show for next week

If you slept through the last week, this headline from Detroit Curbed probably has you utterly baffled:

Ilitch Responds to John Oliver’s Critique of Stadium Deal

Yes, that’s the owner of the Detroit Red Wings (and Detroit Tigers, and Little Caesar’s Pizza) issuing a press statement in response to an HBO comedian’s criticism of his deal to get $300 million in public subsidies for a new hockey arena. And what was Ilitch’s response?

“This project is about so much more than a world-class sports and entertainment arena; it’s about transforming a core part of our city for the benefit of the entire community,” the statement said. “The new Detroit arena and The District Detroit will create 8,300 construction and construction-related jobs, as well as at least 1,100 permanent jobs. To date, the Detroit Downtown Development Authority has approved nine contracts worth $121 million, of which Detroit-based and -headquartered businesses have won more than 88% — or $106 million. Initiatives of this size, scope and impact — $1.8 billion dollars for our city, region and state — are almost universally public-private partnerships. The majority of this development is being privately financed, and no City of Detroit general funds are involved whatsoever.”

That doesn’t actually counter any of Oliver’s criticisms, which amounted to pointing out that 1) Ilitch is getting $280 million in public funds, 2) Ilitch is worth an estimated $5.1 billion, 3) Detroit filed for bankruptcy the week before all this was approved, and 4) Little Caesar’s Crazy Bread sucks. In fact, the majority of the development is not privately financed (it’s 58% public, even by the Detroit Free Press’s conservative math), and while city general funds aren’t being used, development funds that would otherwise go to other city projects are, as is a gift of free city land.

In short: Watch John Oliver’s show next week, because he just got handed a whole lot of new material. Thanks, funnyman Mike Ilitch!

Stadiums can be anchors for related development, say newspapers in search of cheap headlines

You know what I missed while I was away? Having the time to read long, misinformed articles about new stadium projects and how they’re just totally different from those old bad stadium projects of a couple of decades ago. Got anything like that for me, Google News?

With the era of standalone, isolated stadiums largely over, sports team owners increasingly are taking on the role of developer and using their stadiums as anchors for entertainment districts or retail and residential developments.

Oh, yeah, that’s the stuff.

The article in question is from the Tampa Tribune’s Christopher O’Donnell, and argues that this newfangled stadium-plus-other-development model being used by teams like the Atlanta Braves and Detroit Red Wings (or “Redwings,” as he calls them) could be used by the Tampa Bay Rays for a new stadium as well. It ignores the fact that these stadium-plus projects aren’t especially new, going back well over a decade (the St. Louis Cardinals‘ “ballpark village” was one of the earlier ones, but I’m sure I’m forgetting others), and mostly ignores, aside from a comment by stadium architecture consultant Philip Bess (who O’Donnell calls “Phillip” — fired all the copy editors, did you, Tampa Tribune?), the problem that if development around a stadium were profitable enough to pay off a stadium, teams would be able to pursue this strategy without public subsidies. Not to mention that if stadium-related development is profitable it could be pursued without the money suck of a new stadium attached, that it could just end up displacing development that otherwise would have taken place somewhere else in town, that development around stadiums has typically appeared years late when it shows up at all, etc., etc.

Anyway, good to see that these articles still pop up every once in a while for me to throw rocks at, and — whoa there!

The new Minnesota Vikings football stadium, to be completed a year from now, is helping draw nearby office towers, upscale housing and other developments, according to its supporters.

Guys! One article at a time, please! I’m still getting back up to speed here.