Bad ideas never seem to die. Proof of that is the continued folly of Ramsey County, Tony Bennett, Governor Dayton, and some in legislature to continue to press for public funding for a new Vikings stadium. Two events this week pushed this folly into the news again. The first was refusal by the Ramsey County Charter Commission (RCCC) to place a proposal on the ballot in 2012 that would require voter ascent on any public funding for the Vikings. The second is a Met Council feasibility study on construction of the stadium in Arden Hills. While opponents were wrongheaded in putting their faith in the RCCC option to halt the stadium, the feasibility study really offers the best arguments and tactics for them to stop the project in Ramsey County.
The Folly of Public Subsidies for Sports
Public subsidies for professional sports teams are economic follies. Back in a February 10, 2011 MinnPost piece; I outlined the economic argument against them. Simply put, such economic subsidies are economically inefficient, are horrible economic development tools, and they fail to produce the returns on investment to the public that they tout. Overall, studies are conclusive in terms of their bad economic value compared to other investments that governments can make.
Yet these bad ideas do not seem to die. Politicians get sports fever, they chum up with team owners, take their political contributions, or get captured by the “a major sports teams makes us a first class city” syndrome and therefore want to build a new stadium in their community. They get gripped by the “if you build it they will come” mentality,” and they also get Pharaoh envy–they see a stadium as their form of a pyramid that they can point to as a final legacy of their time in office. Overall, even in the best of times public subsidies are economic sinkholes for communities but in bad economic times the argument is about priorities. Money for greedy billionaires ahead of highways, schools, and heath care? Money for the Vikings and not to help tornado victims in Minneapolis (yet I know this is another country)? What statement are we making when we say money for sports is more important than K-12 education?
Finally, remember, professional sports is a business and this is supposed to be America, the land of capitalism. Since we are we supposed to subsidize businesses, especially ones that are profitable? What part of this do politicians not understand?
How not to stop the stadium?
Ramsey County Charter Commission
Asking the RCCC to place on the 2012 ballot a proposal to require voter ascent for public funding for a Vikings stadium would have been closing the barn door after the cows ran out. The Vikings and Ramsey County could have done the deal before that vote. The vote, even if successful, might have come too late and the damage would have already been done. Opponents confused the RCCC with the Ramsey County Commissioners (RCC). The RCCC is not a policy body–it defines the structure of government for how policy is made. The pressure needs to be directed on the RCC to stop the project but that seems unsuccessful. Thus, option two.
How to stop the stadium?
Met Council “Stadium Proposal Risk Analysis”
The best read of the week was the Met Council’s “Stadium Proposal Risk Analysis” documenting the costs and problems associated with the Arden Hills site. In summary, the report correctly states that the potential pollution, site remediation, and infrastructure costs associated with the project may be far greater than anticipated. Moreover, because an environmental impact statement (EIS) and state and federal permits may be required for the site, completion of the project within the time frame anticipated is also doubted. What does all this mean?
The proposed Vikings site is polluted and perhaps more so than anticipated. The real costs cold balloon and one may never know the full bill until the project is begun. At that point one is faced with a sinkhole problem. By that, hundreds of millions are already committed and to finish the project more will be required.
First, he project could have significant cost overruns.
Second, the pollution and remediation efforts expose the public to potential lawsuits from the cleanup and it is unclear what insurance is available to cover the county.
Third, the infrastructure repairs are extensive and may again be far more extensive than stadium supporters are describing.
Fourth, all of the above will require government environmental permits to begin the work, but only at the EIS is completed. The EIS an permitting process could take years, delaying the project well beyond the Vikings deadline and what are now given as estimates for project completion.
In short–the Arden Hills project is potentially more expensive and complicated than its advocates claim. Here is where opponent have leverage. Over the years I have seen more projects delayed or killed than I can count because of shoddy EIS. In a rush to complete a project an EIS is rushed and done poorly, risks are ignored, and estimates of remediation downplayed. What happens then is either permits are not issued or lawsuits are filed in federal court holding up projects for years because of a rush to sneak projects through. Think of the replacement for the Stillwater Lift Bridge and I have said enough.
Thus, if opponents really want to kill the Arden Hills project the RCC and Dayton may be their best friend. In their rush to get the project done they will do a bad EIS and risk assessment, setting up the real ability of opponents to challenge the EIS in court, thereby delaying the project for years and driving up the costs of doing the project beyond the underestimated price tag that is already being touted for this folly.