SOCIOLOGISTS ANALYZE HOW ONE CITY BUILT A NEW SPORTS VENUE
COLUMBUS, Ohio – The recent battle in Washington, D.C. about spending public money on a new baseball stadium sounds familiar to residents in Columbus.
Columbus voters were among the first to ever reject pleas to spend public money on a new stadium for a professional sports team. In contrast, the latest deal in Washington will mean construction of a stadium that will cost up to $600 million – all or part of which will come from public funds.
Despite the rejection of public funds in Columbus, the controversy resulted in a “win-win” situation for all parties involved, according to sociologists who wrote the recent book High Stakes: Big Time Sports and Downtown Redevelopment (Ohio State University Press).
The researchers, all with ties to Ohio State University, believe the experience of Columbus could provide lessons to other cities grappling with how to pay for sports stadiums.
“The project worked because public and private resources were pooled in an intelligent way. Had this been a project funded mostly funded by taxpayer dollars, it is doubtful the ending would have been so positive.”
Curry wrote the book with Kent Schwirian, a professor emeritus of sociology, and Rachael Woldoff, a former Ohio State graduate student who is now an assistant professor of sociology and anthropology at West Virginia University.
The authors analyzed the building of Nationwide Arena, home to the NHL franchise Columbus Blue Jackets, and to a lesser extent, the building of a stadium for the Columbus Crew of Major League Soccer. They used media reports, official documents, and in-depth interviews with 34 of the people involved in the ballot issue to study the public process of how the stadiums were built.
In the late 1990s, pro-development supporters pushed for an increased sales tax in Columbus to pay for the two new venues. As supporters of publicly financed stadiums have done in other cities, they argued that a tax increase was needed for Columbus to win the competition among cities for the hockey franchise, and to prevent the soccer franchise from relocating to another city.
A strong, organized opposition fought to prevent any tax increase from funding the stadiums. In the end, voters in 1997 turned down the tax increase by a 56 to 44 percent vote.
Still, both the hockey and the soccer stadiums ended up being built, mostly with private funds. Nationwide Insurance led a group that built the hockey arena. The Hunt Sports Group built the soccer stadium.
“With what has happened in Washington and other cities, it is hard to believe that the new arenas in Columbus did not involve vast expenditures of public funds,” Curry said. “But in the end everyone benefited.”
Curry said Columbus had one advantage that many other cities considering a new sports stadium don’t have. In many cases, cities are pressured to build a new stadium for a team they already have.
Often, franchises threaten to leave a city if they don’t get the publicly financed stadium they want. But since Columbus didn’t have a hockey team, the public didn’t feel they would lose something by refusing to pay for a new arena.
“Columbus was lucky that the NHL was willing to wait for the city to find a way to finance an arena,” Curry said. “That isn’t going to happen all the time, but the NHL wanted Columbus as a market.”
One of the arguments proponents of publicly financed stadiums often make is that these stadiums spur urban redevelopment and end up benefiting the city as a whole. But Curry said that argument is only partly true.
There’s no doubt that the area directly around Nationwide Arena has benefited, Curry said. In fact, one of the reasons the private financing worked, he noted, was the emphasis on redevelopment.
“When the public says ‘no’ to tax increases, private sector entrepreneurs can profitably take on the construction costs of a sports venue if a bold developer folds it into a larger neighborhood redevelopment project,” he said.
In Columbus, the hockey venue has helped develop what is now known as the “Arena District” and has attracted many new restaurants and nightspots to the area. But the benefits don’t spread much further than the immediate area.
For example, Columbus’ downtown mall, just a few miles from the Arena District, is failing and didn’t seem to receive any boost from the new arena.
“The theory is that people only have so many entertainment dollars to spend,” Curry said. “Restaurants near the arena will prosper, but those further away won’t be helped and may even decline.
“It’s not exactly a zero-sum game, but a new arena is also not a pot of gold for the whole city that is just there for the taking.”
That’s why Curry said he is skeptical of those who believe a new baseball stadium in Washington will be a boon to the community.
After months of controversy, D.C. officials brokered a settlement in late December that will allow a new baseball stadium to be built. While the numbers aren’t firm, a significant portion of the cost will be borne by the city.
Curry is skeptical of how much value the city will get from its expenditures.
“A new stadium is not going to change life in Washington very much. Some people will be proud of having the new team, but for most people it won’t make any difference to their daily lives at all,” Curry said.
“That's why you don’t want to divert hundreds of millions of dollars of public funds that might be needed for other essential services. For instance, the mayor of Columbus is cutting the budget for neighborhood health clinics. One is already closed and the others are cutting back services. How could Columbus justify spending millions for a stadium when it can’t keep all of its health clinics open?”
Regardless of what happens in Washington, the issue of how to pay for sports stadiums is not going to go away, Curry said. State and local expenditures for stadiums and arenas escalated from $700 million in the mid-1970s to more than $2 billion in the early 1990s.
And, too often, city leaders begin to value sports venues for what they represent rather than what they cost. Leaders don’t want to lose their sports teams, no matter what it may mean for public expenditures.
“Columbus can serve as an example of how cities can get their stadiums with minimal costs to taxpayers,” Curry said. “I’m not sure how many cities will follow the example, but more cities should at least consider their options.”