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Art Callaham: A stadium is far more than just a stadium

July 21, 2013|By ART CALLAHAM

I can’t believe I’m writing these words; however, you may quote me on this: “Ron Bowers is right!” Of course, to not negatively reflect on my Republican roots I have to add: “for once.”

No, seriously, Ron and I have disagreed and agreed on many issues. Neither our agreements nor disagreements have had much of an impact on anything of importance in the grand scheme of things; but, our discussions have led to a great friendship built on a foundation of mutual respect for each other’s opinions.

What’s so right about Ron’s opinion lately? In a recent news article, Ron, speaking as the vice chair of the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission said: “… a stadium should be far more than just a stadium. The businesses, the accessory uses that would go around the stadium would far outweigh the cost (of the stadium) by putting a lot of land, major businesses on (the) tax rolls. And that’s something we have to look at. Too much emphasis is being placed on just a stadium.”

He’s right — far too much emphasis is being place on the stadium — the structure, the facility, the place. What is more important, for economic development within an area, a community, a city and a county, is what happens in and around the stadium.

But let’s start from the top, for the “wags” out there in “commenter/Mail-Call land” who love to spout off about “sports economists” (that term is as much an oxymoron as “military intelligence”) — you need to understand one simple point. Stadiums, rinks, parks, pools, athletic fields and any number of other euphemistic terms for venues used for athletic or recreational endeavors are not usually profitable whether owned by public or private entities.

Don’t believe that simple point? Then get a real economist, not a sports economist (sports economists can measure the per pound value of a middle linebacker, or the cost per yard of a 4.3 second 1,000-yard running back), to do an evaluation of the operational costs of the current municipal stadium and you’ll readily see that the facility by itself “loses” money. Need more evidence? Look at the ice rink and the annual subsidy from the city, the golf course and the annual subsidy from the county, and on and on.

So, enough already about the stadium — old, new, renovated, location, tax dollars, private investment — the stadium by itself is a loser!  But here’s where Ron is right.  Bowers realizes that the economic value to the community comes from what goes on inside and outside the facility.

Inside you have vendors for services, team operations and produced events — each of these endeavors means jobs. Jobs mean income tax revenue (corporate and individual), ticket taxes and other potential sources of government revenue, as well as places for people to work and earn a living. Oh, I know this might seem to be small potatoes, but let’s move outside the stadium.

Property tax revenue, based on the increase in the tax base may increase. Ancillary businesses (in the case of a stadium that may include restaurants, hotels, sporting goods stores, bars, bookstores, banks, office buildings housing professionals such as lawyers, accountants — you name it) start up or grow. Business means jobs; ditto what I said earlier about how job growth affects government revenue and society in general (the best social program is a job). Now, that is economic development using, in this example, a stadium as the catalyst.  Ron is right; OMG, I’ve said that twice!

If you want to keep this really simple, think of the stadium project like a public road. The road itself loses money because of upkeep and no revenue stream. However, the economic development value of that road is determined by what travels over the road and the development on either side of the road.

Well, my word limit on this column is running out, or I would explain why the government, not the private sector, needs to be the primary investor in a stadium.

Oh, it’s not because I’m defending those “loathsome” developers who are my friends — more on that in a later column.

The one point that I believe Ron makes, is simple; there is a difference between a single facility project and community economic development.  Wherever, or whenever, we finally decide to build or renovate an economic catalyst such as a stadium, the real emphasis needs to be on the communitywide economic impact — jobs, tax base, and growth. Hopefully that impact will be positive in all ways.

Art Callaham is a community activist and president of the Washington County Free Library Board of Trustees.

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