As the Kings-arena locomotive races off toward the financial sinkhole, the promoters of the downtown project make wilder and wilder claims that go unchallenged.
The Sacramento City Council did indeed vote Tuesday night to donate $550,000 of our money to a panel of consultants to accelerate the development of a financial plan for a new arena. The NBA has demanded that the city have a financial plan in place by March.
Mayor Kevin Johnson, a former NBA basketball star who has his ambitions set on a “world-class” arena, described the consultant fees as a worthwhile investment in a project that could bring thousands of jobs and billions of dollars to the region, according to a Sacramento Bee story Wednesday.
Do the claims sound too good to be true? Yes, they do. Do they sound familiar? Yep, and that’s because they come straight out of the playbook of sports team owners and their business allies for grabbing taxpayer money for their own profit. They’ve been shouted and repeated so many times across the country in the past two decades of mega-stadium building that they’ve become a subject of scholarly interest. And what many experts say to taxpayers is this: Don’t allow public officials to indulge in corporate welfare. You and your city will come out losers.
Thousands of pages of scholarly and reportorial analyses are available to those who want to assess the wisdom of arena projects. They are available to newspapers and public radio stations that fancy themselves public watchdogs. Two valuable resource materials are these books: “Public Dollars, Private Stadiums” by Kevin Delaney and Rick Eckstein and “Field of Schemes” by Neil deMause and Joanna Cagan.
Unfortunately, the local media don’t seem very questioning or skeptical. They aren’t providing background and context in their news-side coverage. They aren’t challenging the extreme claims of financial benefits uttered by the mayor. They haven’t questioned why developers are so interested in a downtown arena rather than one in Natomas. They haven’t explored who’s really driving the arena locomotive. What I see is reactive journalism: The promoters make a statement, and the media respond to it. They invite Think Big Sacramento spokespeople to their radio talk shows. They follow every turn of the screw but don’t examine what is being built and why.
On the opinion side, The Bee’s editorial writers and columnists seem fully supportive of a publicly subsidized arena. A Sept. 15 editorial on Johnson’s re-election bid said: “A new arena that jump-starts the downtown railyard – and that is paid for in a way that gives taxpayers a fair shake – would be a proud legacy.”
Taxpayers rejected a sales-tax hike to fund a new arena by an 80 percent margin in 2006. They don’t want a “fair shake” – they said quite strongly that they don’t want their money given away for a sports arena.
Columnist Marcos Breton on Wednesday opined that a downtown arena is the only opportunity Sacramento has for breaking out of the economic doldrums. If you don’t agree, then come up with another way to attract investors, he challenged “naysayers,” especially “older ones who view sports teams and talk of arenas with disdain.”
Point 1: City Council members were elected to guide the city, and they are the ones who have the primary responsibility and resources for examining all options to spur economic recovery while being financially prudent. If they are incapable of doing the job, they should invest $550,000 to hire experts without vested arena interests to explore possibilities.
Point 2: When promoters scream that you must act now or lose a golden opportunity, you can be sure that you’re being taken for a ride. The NBA and the Maloof family have been threatening the city with the loss of the Kings unless it forks over public money in a hurry. If a downtown arena were a gold mine, private developers would be rushing to cash in, and they sure aren’t.
Point 3: When a columnist criticizes “older naysayers,” he would seem to be indulging in ageist stereotypes to demean opponents of corporate welfare. Older residents, to my mind, have long memories and remember how the Kings were originally brought to town by developers eager to carve up Natomas farmland. They remember the 1997 loan to the Kings that remains far from being paid off. They know from experience the folly of leapfrog development in real estate that leaves blight in its wake. They know that a downtown arena will mean the loss of money for Natomas businesses.
Point 4: Look behind the hype and ask hard questions.