Friday roundup: Remembering Jim Bouton, and the latest in stadium shakedown absurdities

One day maybe 16 or 17 years ago, I was sitting at my computer when my phone rang and a voice at the other end said, “Hi, this is Jim Bouton. Can I speak with Neil deMause?”

Once I’d picked my jaw up off the floor that the author of Ball Four (and winner of two games in the 1964 World Series) was calling me, we got down to business: Bouton was in the midst of writing a book about his attempts to save a nearly century-old minor-league baseball stadium in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and had some questions about how attempts to save old ballparks (and save the public’s money on building new ones) had gone in other cities. We soon fell to chatting amiably about the nuances and absurdities of the stadium game — I’m pretty sure Jim had only one setting with people he’d just met, which was “chatting amiably” — and eventually ended up having a few conversations about his book and his work as a short-term preservationist and ballclub operator. (The preservation part was successful — Wahconah Park is still in use today — but he was eventually forced out from team management.) I got to meet him in person for the first time a couple of years later when he came to Brooklyn to talk with local residents then fighting demolition of their buildings to make way for a new Brooklyn Nets arena, an issue he quickly became as passionate about as everything else that touched his sense of injustice; when I learned (at a Jim Bouton book talk, in fact) that the initial edition of Field of Schemes had gone out of print, he enthusiastically encouraged me and Joanna Cagan to find a publisher for a revised edition, as he had never been shy about doing for his own books, even when that meant publishing them himself.

The last time I talked to Jim was in the spring of 2012, when he showed up at a screening of the documentary Knuckleball! (along with fellow knuckleball pitchers R.A. Dickey, Tim Wakefield, and Charlie Hough) to help teach kids how to throw the near-magical pitch. We only got to talk briefly, as he was kept busy chatting amiably with everyone else who wanted a moment with him. Soon after that, he had a stroke, and eventually developed vascular dementia, which on Wednesday took his life at age 80.

I’m eternally grateful to have had a chance to spend a little time with one of the nicest, smartest, funniest world-famous authors and ballplayers you could ever hope to meet, especially when we crossed paths on a topic that was so important to both of us. The image I’ll always retain of Jim, though, was of getting ice cream with him near his home in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and him looking at my cup and exclaiming, “Sprinkles! That’s a great idea!” and then sprinting back into the shop to get some added to his as well. To the end, Jim Bouton remained boyishly intense about things that were truly important, whether fighting General Electric to save an old ballpark or eating ice cream, and that’s a rare and precious gift. My sympathies to his wife, Paula, and to all who loved him, which by this point I think was pretty much everybody.

And now, to the nuances and absurdities of this week’s stadium and arena news:

Missouri approves $41m worth of renovations for Blues arena that St. Louis just paid $67m to renovate in 2017

The state of Missouri has approved $70 million in spending over 20 years for renovations to the St. Louis Blues arena — and if you feel like this just happened a couple of years ago, you’re almost right: That was $67 million in city money, and will cover scoreboard, sound system, and seat upgrades; the state money will pay for escalators, roofing and heating, and air conditioning, because apparently that’s what was left to buy on the Blues’ gift registry.

This will be totally worth it, say public officials, because competitiveness!

“Without renovations, and without public-sector support for those renovations, we run the risk of being less competitive in pursuit of national events,” said Frank Viverito, president of the St. Louis Sports Commission, a nonprofit organization that attracts and manages sporting events.

Also because hockey is fun!

The fact that the Blues currently are making a run in the NHL postseason was mentioned by more than one state lawmaker during House debate on Wednesday, including by some who eagerly described going to hockey games.

(I’m having trouble finding documents to confirm this 100%, but the Blues owners appear not to have agreed to any sort of lease extension in exchange for the subsidies, presumably because St. Louis and Missouri official are even bigger morons than their neighbors over in Indiana.)

Since the payments are deferred a bit, the state’s $70 million in nominal subsidies is worth more like $41 million in present value, so that reduces the sting a bit. Though the legislature also tacked on approval to pay another 10 years’ worth of $3-million-a-year lease subsidies to the Kansas City Chiefs and Royals, which adds to the sting, though at least those are subsidies that were planned for all along, so it’s not really a new waste of cash, just an agreement to keep up with the commitment to an old one? Maybe it’s best just to say Who can put a price on state-of-the-art escalators? and leave it at that.

How cities haven’t actually fallen out of love with funding sports stadiums

The May issue of Governing magazine has an article with the provocative headline, “How Cities Fell Out of Love With Sports Stadiums,” though it’s really mostly about why St. Louis balked at throwing money at an MLS stadium and fought back against paying for arena upgrades for the Blues after getting burned when the Rams got the most sweetheart lease deal in history and then used a lease loophole to move back to Los Angeles just 21 years later.

All that is good and fine, as is the article’s discussion of how “the economic impact reports singing the praises of sports development have largely been discredited.” But in the service of trying to make the story into “regular folks used to fall all over themselves to hand money to sports teams, but now they’ve smartened up,” writer Liz Farmer oversimplifies or just plain gets wrong a number of things about the stadium subsidy game and how it’s played, which is going to be a problem if any people in the business of actual governing take it as gospel. Let us count the ways:

“When [Rams owner Stan] Kroenke came along and had the gall to start making demands for a football team that hadn’t had a winning record since 2003, the city was — quite literally — spent. St. Louis was suffering under the same socioeconomic and fiscal pressures as Cleveland, Detroit and most other Rust Belt cities. Its population was declining rapidly, and it was stuck paying off debt for the existing stadium until 2022. Residents were increasingly skeptical when it came to investing in gaudy entertainment amenities the lower-income population couldn’t afford to use.”

St. Louis’s population has been declining since 1950 — if anything, it’s leveled off some in recent years — though its county population has soared as more people moved to the suburbs. And residents were pretty darned skeptical before, too: Way back in 2002, St. Louis citizens approved a referendum requiring that all public subsidies for sports facilities would need to go to a public vote. Unfortunately for voters, courts ruled that the target of that referendum — the Cardinals stadium deal that had just been approved prior to that — was grandfathered in, but it’s not like public resistance in St. Louis is anything new.

“The era of taxpayer-financed stadiums came about almost by accident. Seeking to limit the use of government bonds in stadium financing, the federal Tax Reform Act of 1986 included a provision that capped at 10 percent the direct stadium revenue — mostly from ticket sales and concessions — that could be used to pay for the cost of the facility. That meant that governments would have to raise broad-based taxes, such as on sales or business, to cover the rest of the cost.”

Not quite. What the 1986 tax reform law was attempting to do was to rein in cities’ use of federally tax exempt bonds for private projects — not just stadiums, but all kinds of development — by saying, “Look, only really public amenities, okay? Don’t just offer discounted bonds to anybody who asks and then stick federal taxpayers with the bill.”

Unfortunately, the way that Congress chose to address this was by defining public amenities as things that were paid for by the public — if more than 10% of the cost was paid off by private funds (or special taxes that were just private funds masquerading as public dollars to get eligibility), low-cost federal bonds were off the table. Unfortunately, what that did was to increase the leverage of sports team owners, who could now say, “Yeah, sorry, we would love to put in more money of our own, but then it would increase the financing costs, and we can’t have that, can we?”

This is by no means what started the era of taxpayer-financed stadiums, though: Team owners were already demanding new stadiums and arenas left and right, using the usual playbook of methods to do so (move threats, claims of economic benefits, etc.). The tax reform law further titled the scale toward bigger demands, but it didn’t create the demands in the first place — and while getting rid of tax-exempt bond subsidies would be a nice step, it wouldn’t put an end to stadium subsidies in the slightest.

“But Congress didn’t account for the fan loyalty and pride that — at the time — made raising local taxes more acceptable.”

Fan loyalty and pride are still on full display, but sports fans are taxpayers, too, and have been resisting handing their tax dollars over to sports team owners as much as anyone since the beginning. Just ask Frank Rashid.

“The boom was driven in part by demand from teams and fans for a more sophisticated sports experience than the drab concrete coliseums they were used to.”

If by “more sophisticated sports experience” you mean “more pulled-pork sandwiches and nicer cupholders,” sure. But plenty of sports venues have been torn down in recent years to make way for new facilities that are arguably even drabber than the ones they replaced.

“The Washington, D.C., soccer team, D.C. United, spent years negotiating with the nation’s capital over a new soccer-specific stadium. Those talks effectively shut down once the economic downturn hit in 2008, and the team spent another seven years shopping around in the surrounding counties — even going as far as Baltimore — trying to find a local government that would pay for the facility. None would bite. Ultimately, the team stayed in D.C. and is paying to build a stadium on land the city spent $150 million acquiring. The deal includes a non-relocation agreement.”

In addition to that free land, D.C. United is also getting $43 million in property tax breaks, making it the most expensive MLS soccer stadium subsidy in history. The tide is turning!

“Kiel Center Partners, the firm that owns the NHL Blues, had asked the St. Louis City Board of Aldermen for $64 million to finance upgrades to the Scottrade Center. Had the city’s voters not been distracted by the soccer stadium proposal and by a heated mayoral election, the financing might have met more resistance. Some aldermen did question whether the city’s 1994 lease with the team required it to pay for upgrades, but still the proposal narrowly passed. If it had been submitted to a popular vote, it most likely would have failed.”

Again, “if voters had been asked, they would have voted it down” is likely true of all of St. Louis’s past sports subsidy deals. (Possibly not the original Rams deal, though if they’d known that it would allow the team to move away by claiming their two-decade-old stadium was no longer “state of the art,” they might have balked at that, too.) And voters didn’t get to vote because the city council just up and decreed that they wouldn’t be allowed to, despite that 2002 referendum, so it’s tough to see how this is a sign of increased political resistance.

“So the hockey team got its way. Things like that still happen. But they don’t happen easily, and they don’t happen with broad public support. Several years ago, for instance, when the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings wanted a publicly funded stadium, the state legislature rejected the proposal. Eventually the team got its money, but with a state law capping public contributions to the $1 billion project at $498 million.”

OMG, the Vikings owners actually had to ask for stadium subsidies multiple times! And then they had to settle for a mere half-billion dollars in cash, except counting tax breaks and other hidden goodies it’s actually costing taxpayers more like $1.1 billion, so, uh.

In the end, the Governing article isn’t a terrible one, and it does touch on a lot of details of the stadium scam that Governing likely wouldn’t have been caught dead discussing 20 years ago. (Now there’s some progress.) But if the takeaway is that the general public loved sports stadium plans, but now have realized they were duped, that’s not the story at all: Actually it’s been a battle from the beginning between team owners trying to extract as much public money as possible, and taxpayers and some of their local representatives trying to push back. And while maybe a few more elected officials are pushing back harder, there’s pushback against the pushback, too. So this whole mess isn’t ending anytime soon, much as I wish it were so I could retire this blog and go back to treating sports as the purely apolitical, fun pastime that it never really was.

Friday roundup: Battles over Blues arena, Vegas bond subsidy, Belmont land for Islanders

Let’s get right to this week’s remainders:

St. Louis puts temporary hold on Blues practice rink that bulldozed public park

The St. Louis County Council voted 4-3 last night to put on hold construction of the new St. Louis Blues practice rink that, it turned out a few days ago, is destroying public parkland without the required permission of the National Park Service:

“When council members called the developers of this project, they were told that the land disturbances that were taking place in Creve Coeur had nothing to do with the ice rink, it was for stormwater,” [council char Sam] Page said. “We know that now to be false … It’s important to tell the truth and follow the rules.”

The council’s decision to put the rink — sorry, it can’t be avoided — on ice came despite heavy turnout by youth hockey parents, who Blues execs had asked to come show support for their construction project, which would also include amateur rink space. More than 17,000 people have now signed a petition calling for the rinks not to be built in the park.

Meanwhile, the cost of the rinks appears to have gone up, from $59.3 million to $66 million, including $38.3 million in public bonds, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The bonds would be repaid via a complicated series of lease agreements with a nonprofit organization — I still haven’t been able to find all the details, though the Post-Dispatch does report that the county would be on the hook for as much as $450,000 a year in “backstop payments” if money fell short. Seems like lots of reasons to call a timeout on this one, really — now let’s see how everyone does going forward on that whole telling the truth and following the rules thing.

Blues don’t wait on Park Service permission, go ahead and bulldoze park for practice arena

If you remember the long battle over the new New York Yankees stadium, you may remember how one key hurdle was getting the approval of the National Park Service for the project, since the stadium site was on parkland that had previously gotten federal funds, meaning it either needed to be maintained as open space in perpetuity or replaced with equal land elsewhere. (A requirement that was eventually met, sort of, by building a new park years late on the other side of a highway.)

The St. Louis Blues are currently working on building a new practice rink on 40 acres of similarly federally funded parkland in suburban Maryland Heights — using $6 million of county money, in addition to the county land — and so are stuck in the same boat of waiting on the NPS. Except, according to St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Tony Messenger, the Blues owners aren’t waiting:

Today, the site tapped for the ice complex is scraped bare by bulldozers. On both sides of Marine Avenue in the northwestern corner of the federally protected park, trees, grass, wildlife and wildflowers are gone, replaced by acres of dirt being flattened and raised by heavy construction equipment every day.

That work, key county officials claim, has nothing to do with the ice project, which has yet to get the approval it needs buy generic lorazepam online from the National Park Service to go forward.

Messenger reports that Sheila Sweeney, CEO of the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership, insists the park was bulldozed not for the Blues, but for “an unrelated stormwater project.” Only one problem:

The proposed site of the Blues practice arena project is 13750 Marine Avenue, which besides being in the county park is also in the city limits of Maryland Heights. That means the company doing the grading work needed a permit from the city.

That permit was issued July 6. It lists the description of the work to be done:

“Construction of an Ice Center.”

Environmental groups are fighting the use of parkland for the hockey complex, with a Change.org petition that notes that not only is Creve Coeur Park valuable green space, but it sits in a floodplain, making it maybe not the best place for a permanent sports facility. And now the chair of the St. Louis County Council has called for a timeout on the project, on the grounds that “information that now appears to be incorrect, misleading, or incomplete” and that “we were purposely misled.” Better late than never, I guess, though maybe it would have been nice to do this before the chainsaws came out.

 

Blues’ $67m arena subsidy hit with lawsuit as city comptroller refuses to issue bonds

Speaking of arena upgrade lawsuits, St. Louis’s plan to provide $67 million in public subsidies toward a redo of the Blues‘ arena, which was passed back in February, is facing a court challenge of its own:

Opponents of the publicly funded $64 million renovation to Scottrade Center filed suit Friday to keep the city from paying for the project, alleging the plan is unconstitutional in Missouri.

And on the same day, a spokesman for St. Louis Comptroller Darlene Green said she had no intention of signing the financial agreement that would fund the city’s commitment to the arena.

“The Comptroller has not approved the transaction to issue bonds for the renovation of Scottrade Center, as it would incur debt to the city’s general fund for nonessential services and negatively impact the city’s credit,” Green spokesman Tyson Pruitt said.

The Blues owners insist that Green, who was one of the prime critics of the Rams‘ stadium subsidy plan, doesn’t have the jurisdiction to refuse to issue the bonds, any more than La Liga did to refuse to accept Neymar’s transfer fee from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain. (Note: This is not meant to suggest a legal precedent between FIFA rules and St. Louis city regulations, just an excuse to mention my favorite part of the recent Neymar madness.) As for the suit, filed by currently alderman Cara Spencer, former state Rep. Jeanette Mott Oxford — who has long been a prominent critic of sports subsidies in St. Louis, dating back to the Cardinals stadium deal —and former city counselor James Wilson, it’s based on a Missouri constitutional provision that public money can’t be granted to for-profit corporations for the purposes of boosting their profits. A bunch of states have these provisions on the books, and pretty much none of them are ever enforced — courts generally rule that the real purpose of the subsidies is “creating public economic benefits” or somesuch. It’ll be interesting to watch, though, not least because the arena renovations have already begun, so if the lawsuit prevails presumably the Blues owners would be on the hook for all the costs themselves; or, you know, would have to find some other public body to try to hit up for money, which is always possible too.

St. Louis mayor says Blues arena needs $70m to keep wrestling finals, but what does math say?

I spend a fair amount of time here ragging on media outlets that go out of their way to parrot the arguments made by sports team owners and their political allies on behalf of stadium and arena subsidies. But it’s also instructive to stop and take a look at a more routine kind of media bias: the kind where journalists do their basic job of reporting the facts, but stop short of the most important step, actually explaining to readers what those facts mean.

For today’s punching bag, I present reporter Austin Huguelet of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, whose entirely competent article on St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay asking the state of Missouri for subsidies to his city’s hockey arena (or the Blues‘ hockey arena that is on the city’s books, if you prefer) included the following:

A proposal from Sen. Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, would allow the state to contribute up to $6 million per year to upgrading the St. Louis Blues’ 23-year-old home ice, which officials say needs urgent fixes if it is to continue attracting top-flight sporting events and concerts…

Without the money, Jack Stapleton of St. Louis Sports Commission said Scottrade could lose out on events like the wrestling championships to better equipped facilities with better public support.

“The competition is stiff,” he said. “We are going to up against a lot of cities with newer buildings with public funding.”

He listed Louisville, Chicago and Oklahoma City as examples.

Proponents also offered an array of statistics to support the bid. A report prepared by Johnson Consulting and given to legislators said Scottrade has generated nearly $170 million per year in spending from visitors and an average of about $11 million in annual tax revenue for the state.

So far, so good, though it’d be nice to explain who Johnson Consulting is or what their track record is for economic projections for their other consulting projects. (One example from this site’s archives: Johnson’s prediction of hotel stays due to Austin’s new convention center ended up being overly optimistic by more than 25%.) But more to the point, let’s connect the dots between the first and last figures in that story: The state is being asked for $6 million a year in subsidies in order to avoid hurting an arena that produces $11 million a year in state tax revenues. Unless the wrestling championships are a huge chunk of the arena’s business, that seems like a pretty terrible return on Missouri’s investment — taxpayers would be far better off letting Louisville have the damn wrestling and keeping their $6 million a year for other, more economically productive uses.

Sure, there are other benefits to having the shiniest arena on the block. (Though there are also other downsides that aren’t reported here, like the roughly equal amount of money that the city of St. Louis would be putting up under the Blues owners’ proposal.) But still, this is one of the huge drawbacks of a media industry that sees its job merely as accurately reporting what elected officials and business leaders say, not exploring whether it makes any damn sense. Doing basic math isn’t bias, and neither is investigating the bona fides of the institutions you’re reporting on — though both take time, something that’s increasingly in short supply at newsrooms stripped to the bone in response to declining revenues (and demand for higher profits). So my sincere sympathies to Huguelet and his ilk, but if you have a moment to spare, please try to up your game some next time, okay? Little things like an informed public and the fate of democracy depend on it.

 

St. Louis council approves $127m for Blues, MLS venues, voters can still block the latter

St. Louis lawmakers took major steps last week toward throwing $127 million at upgrades for the Blues‘ hockey arena and construction of an MLS soccer stadium, though the latter will depend on the results of an April voter referendum:

  • The board of aldermen voted on Friday to approve $67 million in subsidies for Blues arena renovations. (It will add up to $105 million over time, but it’s worth $67 million in present value. And while it would mix sales taxes, ticket taxes, and other revenues, all those are all diversion of existing taxes, not new ones the team owners are agreeing to pay, so as discussed earlier, it’s all money that the city would otherwise be able to spend on other things if not being siphoned off for the Blues owners.) Alderman Steve Conway defended the subsidy as necessary to keep drawing NCAA events (“If we don’t make improvements, what comes into general revenue diminishes over time”), though he didn’t appear to provide numbers showing that any added revenue is worth the expense; Alderman Antonio French retorted, “We do not have $105 million to give to anybody. And we’re about to give money to some of the richest people in town because they want a new scoreboard.”
  • Circuit court judge Michael Mullen approved putting $60 million in funding for a new MLS stadium on the April ballot, despite the board of aldermen having approved it too late for the deadline after the initial bill was withdrawn and revised. There will actually be two votes: one to raise sales taxes by 0.5% to expand St. Louis’s light rail system, which would automatically cause use taxes on out-of-state purchases to rise by the same amount; the other would approve taking those use taxes and pouring them into paying off $60 million worth of stadium costs. If either fails to get a majority, the stadium subsidy wouldn’t happen.

The soccer stadium vote will be, unless I’m mistaken, the first time that St. Louis voters will actually be going to the polls under the law approved by a 2002 referendum requiring a public vote on any sports subsidies. (The Cardinals stadium had already been approved then, and the Rams stadium never happened.) The only poll on the subject that I can find is just of Democratic primary voters (though St. Louis is pretty overwhelmingly Democratic); it found respondents opposed to soccer subsidies by a 61-22 margin, so I think it’s fair to say the proposal faces an uphill battle. There’s still two months of campaign spending left, though, so open up those Jamba Juice (and Bain Capital) coffers, Paul Edgerley!

St. Louis committee approves more than $100m in subsidies for Blues, MLS, but who’s counting?

The St. Louis Board of Aldermen’s Ways and Means Committee approved bills this week to funnel public money into both renovations of the St. Louis Blues arena and a new MLS stadium. How much money? As is so often the case, that’s a complicated question:

  • In the Blues’ case, the original plan was to demand $67.5 million from the city, mostly in the form of kicked-back sales taxes. (It would add up to $112 million over time, but the present value would only be $67.5 million.) The committee amended the bill to include $55 million in ticket tax revenue — in place of some of the sales tax money, I think, maybe? — but that cash flow wouldn’t start arriving until 2034 since it’s currently being spent elsewhere. And since it’s not a new tax surcharge but just money that otherwise the city could start collecting for other uses in 2034, I’m not going to go through the trouble of firing up Excel to figure out the present value of that, because it’s a subsidy either way. (The Blues owners are still also demanding an additional $70.5 million from the state of Missouri, though given the new governor’s feelings about such things, that may not go so well.)
  • For the proposed St. Louis MLS team, the original plan was for the city to provide $80 million from mumble-mumble-hey-look-over-there, but that bill was withdrawn by its sponsor last month. In its place now is legislation to provide $60 million in city money, mostly from redirected property taxes, but also including a ticket tax surcharge (really payments in lieu of a ticket tax, for reasons not worth going into here) that would provide $7.5 million to $12 million over the next 30 years, and … okay, now I will fire up Excel, and that’s worth: somewhere between $4 million and $7 million now, so not really a big concession on a $60 million get.

The MLS stadium plan, if approved, would go before city voters in an April referendum. The hockey deal for some reason everyone thinks doesn’t require a public vote, though that’s not what the law passed in 2002 says. Hey, Jeanette Mott Oxford, if you’re reading this, any plans to file suit to intervene in this one?