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George J. Marlin, a director of the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, is the author of "Squandered...

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George J. Marlin, a director of the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, is the author of "Squandered Opportunities: New York's Pataki Years." At the tail end of the 20th century, municipalities throughout the nation went on arena building sprees. Gullible local politicians bought into feasibility studies that purported to show such projects would spur economic growth by attracting tourists and fans armed with plenty of cash to spend. Sadly, these predictions didn't come to pass. Independent analysis after independent analysis published in the last 15 years has concluded that no sports facility had reached its stated goals or yielded a reasonable return on investment. In every case, assumptions have overstated the economic and financial benefits. An often-cited 1997 study from the left-of-center Brookings Institution observed that "no recent facility has been self-financing in terms of its impact on net tax revenues. Regardless of whether the unit of analysis is a local neighborhood, a city, or an entire metropolitan area, the economic benefits of sports facilities are de minimis." A 2004 analysis published by the Cato Institute, a fiscally conservative think tank, reported, "The presence of pro sports teams in 37 metropolitan areas in our sample had no measurable positive impact on the overall growth rate of real per capita income in those areas." Baltimore's Camden Yards, for instance, generates about $3 million a year in economic benefits but costs Maryland state taxpayers $14 million annually in debt service. Studies also confirm that special property tax assessments implemented to cover facility costs never go away, and these revenues are often redirected to cover general operating fund shortfalls. As for spurring economic growth: Most spending by families at local stadiums is merely the reallocation of entertainment dollars, not additional expenditures. Instead of going to the movies and buying popcorn, a family goes to a ballgame and buys hot dogs. Also, business communities surrounding facilities do not benefit. The Yankees have little economic impact outside the Stadium. Faced with in-house steakhouses and bars, most fans do not shop or dine in the Bronx before or after a game. And what if a team is lousy? The City of Fresno in California is a classic case. To entice the Grizzlies, a minor league baseball team, to leave Phoenix in 1999, Fresno issued $46 million in bonds to build a stadium. When the team failed to attract a following and threatened to bolt and bag taxpayers with $3.4 million of annual debt service payments, terrified city pols compounded the financial disaster by agreeing to pay the money-losing team $700,000 in annual subsidies to stay. Finally, there are construction-cost overruns to consider. On average, municipal sports-facility expenditures have been 25 percent over budget. In Cleveland, the stadium cost $140 million over estimates; in Phoenix, $110 million, and in Seattle, $100 million. Cost overruns were north of $40 million in Detroit, Milwaukee and Arlington, Texas. While 50 years ago, sport teams could not lose financially, that's not true now. Sports teams do go broke. Teams in hockey (the Phoenix Coyotes) and baseball (the Texas Rangers) have spent time in bankruptcy. A number of hockey teams are for sale. And when a team fails or moves, the taxpayers are stuck with the facility tab. Kansas City taxpayers have supported an empty arena for years. The fact that sports facilities have proved to be poor investments explains why wealthy team owners are never willing to fork over their own money to build them. And because stadium projects have been nothing more than another form of corporate welfare, angry voters have rejected public financing for them in Milwaukee, San Francisco, San Jose and Seattle. "Publicly funded stadiums are, at best, an inefficient investment of taxpayers' dollars for the meager benefits produced," said the National Taxpayers Union government affairs manager, Andrew Moylan, in a 2007 study. "At worst, [they're] massive payments to rich team owners and players at the expense of ordinary taxpayers." Put another way, if a sports facility project is such a great business deal, let it be a great deal for the private sector, not the taxpayers.

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