Hey, it must be “Let’s all boggle at bankrupt Detroit building an arena for the Red Wings” week: Yesterday’s Lansing State Journal article is followed up by an in-depth piece today at NextCity (you can read the whole thing for $1.99, or read an excerpt at Deadspin) on how “the Ilitch family—with its estimated $3.2 billion net worth—will get a new stadium, slated to open for the 2016-2017 season, built off the backs of taxpayers.” In a city, mind you, where police and firefighters may have their pensions cut to 16 cents on the dollar*.
All of this should be old news to readers of this site, though NextCity’s Bill Bradley does provide a nice precis. The more interesting bit (aside from the several quotes from yours truly, which is mostly going to be interesting if you’re related to me) comes in the section omitted from the Deadspin excerpt, where Bradley asks sports subsidy critics like former U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (who held hearings on stadium subsidies back in 2007) and Seattle city councilmember Nick Licata (who testified at those hearings, as did I, and who was instrumental in passing Seattle’s Initiative 91 that requires that the city get a positive return on any sports venue investment) what the heck they think can be done about it. Kucinich first:
“Any time you’re talking about massive investment of public resources, it ought to be treated in the same way that a venture capitalist would treat it,” Kucinich said. “There’s no business in the world — no bank, no venture capital fund — that would give money to an entity without asking for anything in return. Negotiate a position in the same way that a venture capitalist would. You become a partner, not simply someone who is playing Santa Claus with taxpayer money.”
That’s certainly what Licata and the I-91 forces did, even if the math for “return on investment” turned out to be trickier than they had anticipated. And, it’s worth noting, even though the Sonics subsequently moved to Oklahoma City, Licata says he didn’t suffer any significant retribution at the ballot box from spurned basketball fans:
When he ran for reelection in 2009, the year after the Sonics had left for the heartland, his opponent, Jessie Israel, came out “aggressively” on the stadium issue. “[Israel] was younger than me, well connected, raised more money than I did and beat me up on that issue,” Licata said. “And I still won by a 14-point advantage. The folks who are strong advocates for professional sports teams are passionate and that passion translates into a lot of heat, but it doesn’t necessarily translate into a lot of votes.”
Still, the number of elected officials pushing a standard of “the public should get back something equal to what it puts in” remain few and far between, for reasons that I’ve covered elsewhere. (TL; DR version: Lobbyists!!!) And to change that is likely to require more organizing from both the local Licatas of the world and the Congressional Kuciniches — okay, you know what, hell with, I’m just going to quote myself:
Ending the scam that is stadium welfare very well may have to start with local leaders — like Licata in Seattle and [Frank] Rashid in Detroit — before there’s a better chance of real change in Washington.
“I think it has to be both at once,” deMause said. “Congress isn’t going to act until there’s a major public groundswell, which needs to happen locally because organizing takes place around this stuff on a local level. At the same time, local officials are always going to be at the mercy of teams threatening to move — even if only to the county across town with the elected officials dumb enough to fall for their scam — until there’s some federal restriction on companies playing off localities against each other.”
Things aren’t exactly going great on either of those fronts, but hey, there’s a first time for everything. Drops of water turn a mill.
*UPDATE: Or 94 cents on the dollar, or somewhere in between. See comments.