St. Louis columnist says Rams need new stadium because of Ferguson and something about balls

Boosters of a new St. Louis Rams stadium held a rally yesterday, and Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon reiterated that he thinks he can spend money on one without legislative approval, because ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT!!!!!!

Nixon said he has no plans to seek Legislative approval. This is an economic development project, he repeated Thursday. He doesn’t seek Legislative or voter approval for business expansion, he said, or factory construction.

“If we don’t do this, there is no other project that’s going to knock out 50 dilapidated buildings and build a world-class facility there,” he said. “There’s nothing else in the queue.”

Besides, he said, the Legislature had all session this year to do something, and couldn’t get anything done, he said.

Yeah! If you don’t build a stadium, you legislators, I’m going to build one for you! How’s about them apples!

(In completely unrelated news, yet another state legislator said that the reason the legislature hasn’t yet passed a stadium bill is that it thinks it should actually hold a vote before taking on extra debt.)

I was going to write something snarky about how crazy this all is, but then I ran across this Benjamin Hochman column for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (2015 Pulitzer Prize Winner! presumably not for this!) that asserts that the combined impact of the Ferguson police killing of Michael Brown and the possibility of the Rams leaving has “emasculated” St. Louis, and the city needs a new stadium in order to, presumably, give it, you know. Where’s Cynthia Ozick when you need her?

 

 

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!

Rams stadium to serve “regular fans” by giving them place to drink beer and not watch the game

When you’re locked in a flamewar with the legislators you need to pass your football stadium funding plan, what can you do to get people excited about it again? Release new renderings of what the stadium might look like if it ever gets built!

55e61e893f6ba.imageNow, sure, you or I might look at this and think, “Wow, those upper deck seats are going to be a million miles from the field, sitting atop two (or three?) levels of luxury suites and looking down even on the scoreboard.” But that’s not how HOK designer Eli Hoisington thinks of it:

“There’s a trend where everything is luxury, everything is suites now. And we put the general die-hard St. Louis fan front-and-center, embedded in the experience.”

Hoisington’s example of “front-and-center”: Fans will get a three-story brewpub on the outside of the stadium, where they can buy beers and look out at the Mississippi River. Also a 30-foot-wide observation deck for looking at, again, not the game.

Here’s where I would normally make a joke about a slow, muddy river being more entertaining to watch than the Rams, but you know what? This isn’t about what the Rams have done on the field lately, or what they’ll do in the future, or even whether diehard fans might enjoy watching the team through good times and bad, because that’s what diehard fans do. This is about stadium designers thinking that the best thing can do for “regular fans” is give them a really big place to get drunk while watching the game on TV monitors. The saddest part of which is that in the modern NFL-watching experience, it may actually be true.

Stop the presses! St. Louis business leaders have no real opinion on Rams stadium!

Not much new this weekend in the standoff between Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and state legislators over who’ll get to decide on a St. Louis Rams stadium deal, so I know what you’re thinking: Won’t anyone think of the local business leaders?

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch has your back, magnates of industry. Not that you really seem to care much:

Through press representatives, corporate executives either declined to discuss the stadium plan’s specifics or did not respond to requests from the Post-Dispatch to describe in detail their support, or absence of support, for the project.

The few who were willing to speak on the issue were on either side of the spectrum: enthusiastic supporter or sharp critic.

Let’s try to picture the editorial process by which this giant ball of nothingburger ended up in a major U.S. newspaper. Either the reporter in question pitched his editor on a story on how local business leaders feel about a new stadium, or the editor assigned it to the reporter, probably figuring, Hey, these are Important People, we can get a story out of this on a slow Sunday. Problem was, hardly anybody answered. But it was too late to fill the hole in the paper with some actual news, and the article was already written, so sure, “Business execs guarded on stadium proposal” is a news story if we say it is, right?

Where it becomes really problematic, of course, is when whoever it was made the designation of who gets to be Important People. There are any number of people in St. Louis that could have been contacted for equally ambiguous opinions — “Union leaders guarded on stadium proposal,” “Schoolteachers guarded on stadium proposal,” “Women with small children standing on line at local supermarket guarded on stadium proposal” — but business leaders are considered newsworthy just because they are, even though no one elected them, they don’t get any more votes than anyone else, and their opinion doesn’t matter any extra for economic reasons. (It’s not like the local Schnucks grocery chain is going to shutter all its stores and move to California if things don’t go its way, even if its execs had a way they wanted things to go.) It’s like a weird holdover of feudalism: When there are important decisions to be made, ask the local rich guy. We’ve ostensibly had representative democracy for the last couple hundred years, but it’s taking a little while for journalism to catch up.

Missouri senators say they’ll withhold Rams stadium cash; Gov. Nixon: I don’t need their stinking votes

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon has been doing his best to assert that he’ll move ahead with his $400 million-ish St. Louis Rams stadium subsidy plan with or without anyone’s approval, suing to get out of any requirement for a public referendum, asserting that he can sell bonds without needing to ask the legislature first, and funneling as much money as possible through tax credits that he doesn’t need anyone’s permission for. He’s still going to need the state legislature to pay off any bonds, though, and key state lawmakers now say they’ll simply refuse to do so if he tries to go ahead without letting them vote:

House Budget Chairman Tom Flanigan sent a letter Wednesday to Gov. Jay Nixon warning that he will block any effort to put money in the state budget for payments on a new stadium unless the Legislature or voters first approve the additional debt…

“Let me state that I am not opposed to a new stadium in the St. Louis region,” Flanigan wrote to Nixon. “However, I am opposed to using state resources, both tax credits and direct appropriations for debt service, for a new stadium before the existing stadium debt is paid for in full.”

Nixon promptly replied with some digits, and they were raised middle ones:

“The fact that — in the interim — four, five or six folks start talking about it out of a legislature with 200 people? They’re certainly entitled to say what they want,” Nixon said on Thursday. “But it is not going to dramatically affect continued progress we’re making in a taxpayer-sensitive way to move forward.”

When those “four, five or six folks” include the chairs of the budget committees that can block your legislation, I might not choose to be quite so flip about it, but hey, I’m not governor of anything.

Now, before anyone starts painting this as a major roadblock, note that the opposition senators (all of whom are Republicans, while Nixon is a Democrat, if you’re scoring at home) didn’t actually say they’d oppose the stadium funding, just that they’d do so unless they get to vote on it first. There’s clearly some opposition to spending public money on a new Rams stadium before the old one is paid off, but if the line in the sand is just “let us vote on it,” then there’s a clear path for Nixon to compromise. Or would be, if he weren’t dead set on belittling the legislators he needs in order to get this thing approved.

Meanwhile, the NFL relocation clock keeps on ticking, though no one has any clue how many minutes are left to go, or even what yard line any of the teams are on. At some point, presumably, the league is going to declare a two-minute warning (sorry, this metaphor just doesn’t want to die), and whether it’s a bluff or not, then we’re going to see things explode all over the place. I’d put the over-under around February 1, but feel free to set up a real betting line if you want to crowdsource this prediction.

Missouri actually identifies $280m in Rams funding, now only has $100m as “dunno yet”

The Missouri Development Finance Board has approved the first $15 million installment of those $50 million in tax credits Gov. Jay Nixon wants to give to the St. Louis Rams to help fund a new stadium. (The next two installments would come in 2016 and 2017.) That’s as to be expected, but the interesting part comes down in the fine print of the tax credit offering, which finally spells out how Nixon plans to cobble together $400 million or so in public stadium subsidies:

They have proposed to pay for construction with $450 million from the National Football League and the team that plays here, $201 million in bond proceeds from the state and the city of St. Louis, $160 million from the sale of seat licenses and $187 million in tax credits, according to the state application.

Let’s take those one at a time:

  • $201 million in bond proceeds is about what the state could get by refinancing the existing Jones Dome bonds: They have $18 million a year in hotel-motel tax money (approved for the last Rams stadium 20 years ago, which is now unconscionably old), and about $100 million in remaining debt on the dome, so if they can get an interest rate of around 4% they should be good to go there. It’s still doesn’t explain how the city will now pay off the convention center debt that it’s currently using some of the tax money to cover, but at least it exists.
  • While including $160 million from the sale of seat licenses as part of the public portion is a bold move, no doubt Rams owner Stan Kroenke is going to want PSL money to cover his share of the cost. So calling it public funding is going to be contentious, to say the least.
  • $187 million in tax credits: Whaaaa? The $50 million from the Missouri Development Finance Board is discussed above, and there’s been discussion of maybe $30 million in federal Brownfield credits. Other than that, if Nixon and friends have specified what other tax credits they’re thinking of, I’ve missed it (and so has Google).

In other words, we’re still looking at a funding gap of at least $100 million here, though presumably somebody has at least an idea of where to ask for it, even if it’s not completely public yet. And even then, we’re talking about only (“only”) $388 million in public cash, which, while more than the entire last stadium cost, is still less than Nixon had promised. Whether that’d be enough to make Stan Kroenke and the NFL happy enough not to move the team to L.A., assuming it all eventually gets approved, is the $388 million question — if nothing else, it should make for some interesting conversations in NFL board rooms along the lines of “Jeez, Stan, take the free money,” though you know no one’s going to say it out loud for fear of blowing the chance to shake Missouri down for even more.

(Or maybe Kroenke really will just require the people of St. Louis to build the stadium with their bare hands. Some things, after all, money can’t buy.)

Which NFL teams will go to LA? No one can predict, but here are some predictions anyway

I’ve been trying to think of what to say about yesterday’s NFL non-action around moving teams to L.A. or not — in short, the owners of the St. Louis Rams, Oakland Raiders, and San Diego Chargers submitted presentations on the same L.A. stadium plans that we all already knew about, then no one decided anything — and while I was thinking, Barry Petchesky of Deadspin went and did it for me:

It’s a simple matter of math at this point. The NFL is going to move at least one team—Giants owner Steve Tisch says “it’s better than 50-50” that a decision will be made by the 2016 season—and Oakland is the only chopping-block city currently unwilling to offer its team’s ultrawealthy owners hundreds of millions of dollars to stay. Mark Davis has no attachment to the Bay; sentiment doesn’t factor into it.

Good for Oakland, honestly. It—like St. Louis, like San Diego, like every single American city—has much more important things to spend its limited funds on. But this remains sad news for Raiders fans, who seem likely to lose their team, possibly as soon as next year. It’s not fair, but the NFL has all the leverage, because if Oakland won’t make any concessions, there are other cities that will. The only way the stadium scam will ever be stopped cold is if politicians everywhere simultaneously decide sports leagues don’t deserve handouts. It’s hard to see that happening in the near future. It’ll be even harder when politicians look at football-less Oakland, and know the NFL will be more than happy to call their bluff.

Well, maybe. Undeniably, Oakland has the least close to anything resembling a viable football stadium plan: Whereas St. Louis is offering the Rams to go halfsies on a stadum and isn’t sure how it’ll come up with its half, and San Diego has a plan to pay for maybe a third of a stadium that the Chargers hated the minute it left the presses, Oakland has hopes that maybe one day there will be a plan that can actually debated, but not very strong hopes at that. So with three teams and five slots (counting L.A. as two), it’s hard to picture Oakland not ending up an empty chair when this is all over.

That said, it’s never as simple as all that. What happens next is the NFL owners all sit around and figure out how to decide on which teams should most logically move for next season — oh, sorry, they figure out how to exploit the current situation to make the most money. For the time being (the course of the 2015 season, certainly), that should mean speaking ever more loudly about how two teams will be moving to L.A. in 2016, in order to keep fans and elected officials in St. Louis, San Diego, and Oakland panicked that they not be one of the two.

What happens, though, if — okay, when — we get to January and the three non-L.A. cities are still all in their various states of incomplete deals? Sure, you can set ever-shorter deadlines, you can fly Roger Goodell into town to frighten the state legislature, but eventually you need to decide whether to have your bluff called or not. Which means deciding whether to take the offers on the table from existing cities, or selecting Door #2, whether that be Inglewood or Carson.

And here’s where we run into unknowns again, because we simply don’t have a clue how lucrative the L.A. market is compared to the certain cost of being on the hook for paying for virtually all of the cost of building stadiums in Inglewood or Carson. And for that matter, the NFL may not know either. It all remains a massive game of chicken with unreliable information all around, which is no doubt one reason why the league has been stalling as long as it can, in the hopes that somebody makes somebody an offer they can’t refuse.

If I had to guess, I’d see three options. In one, Rams owner Stan Kroenke gets approval to move to L.A., then either the Raiders or Chargers join them. Whichever team is left out immediately starts threatening to move to St. Louis in order to get a better deal out of it current home town. In the second, the Chargers and Raiders move to Carson as planned, and Kroenke probably takes whatever deal he can get in St. Louis, though he’d lose a ton of leverage at that point. (One reason why option one is more likely to be approved by the NFL.)

Option three is the status quo: The NFL owners can’t come to an agreement, and decide to let things drag on into 2016. I’m not sure I’d say it’s likely — there’s little to be gained from stalling much longer than they have already — but it is 100% possible. Just keep in mind that none of this has to do with what makes sense: It’s a bunch of people demanding ransom in a chaotic situation, and those can often end in unexpected ways.

St. Louis mayor: No need for vote on Rams stadium subsidy, because football is “fun”!

If you saw Tuesday’s report that the city of St. Louis had lost its defense of a referendum requirement for any spending on a new Rams stadium and wondered, “Hey, given that the city is for the Rams stadium and was against the referendum requirement in the first place, how hard did they really fight for it?”, well, you can start wondering a lot harder:

Mayor Francis Slay said Wednesday that he would not call for a public vote on a new downtown football stadium, nor would he appeal a judge’s decision invalidating the city ordinance requiring such a vote.

Moreover, a National Football League team is so important to the region and its residents, the city does not have to break even on its investment in the new stadium, Slay said in his first interview after the judge’s ruling this week.

“Having an NFL team in a city is really, I think, a huge amenity,” he said. “It’s one of the things that make living in a big city fun.”

Okay then! The mayor thinks that the NFL is fun, fun enough to be worth losing money on (he doesn’t say how much money), so why ask his constituents what they think? That’s what Rudy Giuliani would have called the absence of leadership, though some people might have another word for it.

Anyway, there’s still a chance that Jeanette Mott Oxford and friends will be able to intervene with an appeal of this week’s ruling, so stay tuned. I’d say it’s a sad day when citizens have to sue their city to get it to enforce its own laws, but then Giuliani was ahead of the curve on that, too.

St. Louis judge tosses out ballot requirement for Rams stadium, says voters didn’t say “Simon says”

Both my laptop and I are sick today (pretty sure neither of us caught it from the other), but I do need to note the big development in St. Louis, where Circuit Court Judge Thomas Frawley ruled that the 2002 city ordinance requiring a public vote before taxpayer money is spent on a new sports facility is “too vague to be enforced,” and struck it down, meaning it wouldn’t apply to any new Rams stadium.

The backstory, as I described it back in April when the state filed suit against the city ordinance and when I didn’t have a headache:

To help understand what’s going on here, let’s travel back in time to 2002, when the Cardinals were in the midst of arranging public funding for a new stadium of their own, and local activists were trying to head off the city and county governments from approving it without letting actual residents have a say. The city referendum requirement passed 55-45% in 2002, and a similar county requirement by an even larger margin two years later, but courts subsequently ruled that since the money had already been allocated, it couldn’t be rescinded by the public vote requirement. All future stadium projects, though, would have to go before the voters.

That’s the clause that the Jones Dome authority is now objecting to, and it’s making a rather strange stand, arguing that because the referendums’ backers drew them up so stringently — they require a public vote on any “financial assistance” including tax breaks, tax-increment financing, free land, loans, or city or county bonds — that this is unacceptably broad. If they’d only been reasonable enough to leave some loopholes that the Rams could drive a stadium-sized truck through, then this lawsuit wouldn’t be necessary.

Frawley has now essentially agreed with the state dome authority, saying that because the 2002 referendum was silent on such matters as whether police and fire services can be supplied to a new stadium without a vote, the whole ordinance needs to be scuttled. There’s still the question of how strongly the city defended the ordinance in court, given that Mayor Francis Slay supports building the Rams stadium — a group of citizens, including some who introduced the 2002 initiative in the first place, sued to intervene in the defense, but Frawley tossed out their request as well. (A separate lawsuit filed by the citizen group is still in progress, and they will likely try to appeal yesterday’s ruling as well.) So for now, the law of the state of Missouri is that if the people of St. Louis wanted a say in spending money on sports venues, they should have worded it more carefully.

For now, though, this is obviously a big step forward for the Rams stadium plan, since it now means the state just has to worry about how to finance $400 million for a new stadium plus $100 million left on the old one from the same taxes that were approved to build the Jones Dome — which seemed a mathematical impossibility back when it was first proposed, even before Gov. Jay Nixon said he’d skip using the $6 million a year in county tax money if it would require a public vote. (The county had its own public-vote requirement passed in 2004, and it remains in place.) That would leave $18 million a year to pay off $500 million in expenses, which simply can’t be done — but at least if Nixon can conquer math, he no longer needs to worry about winning over St. Louis voters as well.

Missouri proposes $50m Rube Goldberg funding scheme for Rams so no one notices it’s spending $50m

The state-run St. Louis Regional Convention and Sports Complex Authority is set to ask for $50 million in state tax credits for a new St. Louis Rams stadium tomorrow, something that isn’t entirely a surprise, given that this has always been part of Gov. Jay Nixon’s stadium funding plan. Way down at the bottom of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch article, though, there’s a tidbit that’s worth exploring further:

Under one option to be presented to the finance board, the Dome authority would donate $100 million raised for the project to a nonprofit entity, which would then contribute $100 million to the board’s Infrastructure Development Fund.

In return for this contribution, the board would issue $50 million in tax credits to the nonprofit, which in turn would sell the credits and donate the proceeds to the Dome authority. The application says it expects to get about 95 cents on the dollar for those tax credits.

That’s a whole lot of paper-shuffling, but the interesting bit is at the end, where the state would be issuing $50 million in tax credits, but the Dome authority would only be getting $47.5 million in proceeds. That’s not a huge difference, but $2.5 million is $2.5 million, which raises the question: Why not just have the state give $50 million to the project directly, instead of mucking around with funneling money through tax credits and nonprofits?

I’m guessing here (Missouri locals and/or public finance experts, correct me if I’m wrong), but my assumption is that it’s so the headlines read “Dome authority to ask for $50 million in state tax credits” and not “Nixon proposes giving $50 million more to Rams.” It comes to the exact same thing, but for whatever reason some people think of tax expenditures as different from public spending, so apparently it’s worth $2.5 million to keep up this charade.