Panel warns that stadium promises often go unfulfilled

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page 11

To everyone excited about the possibility of a new baseball stadium or hockey arena in Toledo, academia had a simple message yesterday: Don’t expect too much.

At a symposium at the University of Toledo, professors and others who have studied the economics of stadiums said politicians promise more than they can deliver. The millions spent on new temples of sport probably would be better spent on projects such as schools, sewers, and streets, they said.

“We have a situation where taxpayers are paying millions to build stadiums for team owners, stadiums they may never set foot in,” said Kenneth Shropshire, a professor at the Wharton School of Business and the University of Pennsylvania’s law school.

Mr. Shropshire was the keynote speaker at the UT college of law’s annual Joseph A. Cannon Memorial Law Review Symposium, which focused this year on the economic impact of stadiums and sports teams.

The Toledo area is swimming in proposals for sports facilities. An arena is planned in Rossford; Lucas County officials are searching for a new home for the Toledo Mud Hens, and Toledo officials are considering building an arena downtown.

Mr. Shropshire, an expert on sports law and economics, cautioned his audience about local leaders who promise a renaissance caused by new stadiums.

He said sports facilities don’t create lots of jobs or generate much economic activity. Even National Football League franchises or teams in other top leagues don’t produce much more of an economic impact than a large department store, he said.

Dollars spent at a new stadium are just dollars not spent at other activities across town. “The amount of leisure money to be spent in a city is fixed,” he said.

“If people are spending more of it going to a ball game, they’re spending less of it for dinner and a movie across town. There isn’t much new money brought into the city.”

Not surprisingly, he said the team owners usually end up as the biggest winners. “How many of us have the public subsidizing our place of business?” he asked.

He said stadiums should be viewed in the same way as museums, parks, or zoos: as things that can affect a community’s quality of life but can’t be justified in purely economic terms. “You can’t expect a return on the investment in a stadium,” he said.

Mr. Shropshire’s address was followed by a brief statement by Tim Gladieux, owner of the Toledo Storm hockey team and a proponent of the new downtown arena proposal. He said the arena would bring a renaissance to downtown.

“It would breathe new life,” he said. “If you care about your community and your investment in downtown, you will give serious thought to the idea.”

He called the arena debate “a thought-provoking test of everyone’s loyalty to downtown.”

Another speaker, Professor Matt Mitten of the South Texas School of Law, said taxpayers too often are snookered by team owners who squeeze what they can out of a city before leaving. Mr. Mitten, a Toledo native and UT alumnus, said May’s vote on a Mud Hens stadium should have persuaded officials not to spend taxpayer millions on the project.

“The voters have spoken, and I think it’s inappropriate for political leaders to be pushing for things the people don’t want,” he said.

Last year, voters rejected a sales tax increase that would have paid for a new ballpark.

The most troubling tale was told by former Tampa, Fla., Mayor William Poe. He sued the city he once ran to try to stop public financing of a $400 million stadium for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

“The team owners gave us our marching orders, and we just got fleeced,” he said.

He said the football team persuaded the city to raise its sales tax for 30 years to pay for the stadium. All proceeds from stadium events – even those unrelated to the Bucs – go to the team’s owners, but the city pays for all maintenance.

Throughout the deal making, team officials regularly threatened to leave town for Baltimore.

The day’s events ended with an hour-long panel discussion on the merits of building a Mud Hens stadium. The discussion broke little new ground, as panel members repeated the disparate opinions that have helped to keep the project from moving forward.

The panelists – representing the city, county, and team, including county Treasurer Ray Kest, city Neighborhoods Manager Rick Thielen, Mud Hens General Manager Joe Napoli, Assistant County Administrator Jim O’Neal, and Councilman Bob McCloskey – sparred over financing, site selection, team ownership, and other issues that have been batted around for years.

The final panelist, Lucas County Commissioner Bill Copeland, said repeatedly that that sort of debate among the panelists was the reason why the project isn’t farther along. “We’ve got to get a consensus and move,” he said.