Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Major League Voting on a Capital Idea

Down here in Arlington, Texas, our city council is taking a big vote this evening.

It's what democracy is all about, right?

But is it what capitalism is all about?

Back in the 1970's, when Arlington was mostly an anonymous big town, a car salesman known to nobody in Washington, DC, managed to woo a Major League Baseball franchise away from the nation's capital.  The car salesman was Arlington's mayor, Tom Vandergriff, a man who has become something of a legend in North Texas for having the audacity to presume his humble little suburb, one county away from Dallas, could be home to such a plumb attraction.

Over the years, the Texas Rangers have both languished in obscurity, and flirted with a national championship in the World Series.  It has been the home team to some legendary baseball personalities, such as Billy Martin and Nolan Ryan (and Jim Sundberg, a former boss of mine).  Arlington residents voted to spend part of the city's sales tax receipts on a grand stadium for their team in the 1990's, complete with soaring archways, its own office building, and a museum.

Fast forward two decades, and new ownership of the Texas Rangers began making their desires known regarding a roof for their stadium, and air-conditioning, since baseball is a summer sport, and summers are notoriously scorching in Texas.  Previous ownership of the team, back when their 1990's stadium was being designed, nixed a roof-and-air-conditioning option, arguing that baseball purists prefer the outdoors to an artificial climate when it comes to watching America's game in person.  Now, however, personal comfort apparently matters more to baseball fans than any open-air vibe.

If the Rangers' new ownership had wanted to put a roof over their current stadium, they'd likely have to pay for it themselves, since maintenance of Arlington's 1990's-era facility is their responsibility.  And they estimate it would cost $300 million to roof the place and install an air conditioning system.  And apparently, the work couldn't be done during the off-season, because they claim the team would have to find another place to play while remodeling took place.

Then, suddenly, earlier this summer, our local media became flush with news that Arlington's current mayor had brokered a gentleman's agreement with the team's owners for building a brand-new ballpark.  It would have a glass, retractable roof; and air conditioning!  And it would be built on a sprawling parking lot just south of the current stadium.  Which will turn a grand old age of 30 in 2024.

It's only 22 years old now.  And its owners already want it replaced.

And they want the city to pay half of their new stadium.  Half.  To the tune of half a billion dollars.  Which means the new owners are planning on building a one-billion-dollar baseball park.

And they thought $300 million was too much for a roof and an a/c system?

The new stadium will be smaller, too.  A more optimum size, they say, considering that the current ballpark is seldom at sell-out capacity.  And a smaller stadium would be cheaper to air-condition.

For his part, Arlington's current mayor, Jeff Williams, thought he'd hit a home run.  A lot of his voters had been anxious about Dallas poaching the Rangers for a new urban ballpark civic boosters in Big D want to build.  Our local media had done a good job of dropping hints that the Rangers would willingly move to whichever city had the most lucrative incentive package for them.

And the media was right.  Only Arlington stepped up to the plate first, and offered a huge slab of mom's apple pie for the team's owners to devour.

Across the nation, media outlets lit up with bemusement and glee.  Those reckless Texans, throwing around money again.  Those Texans are so dead-set on sports they'll let their schools rot and bridges collapse, as long as their sports palaces are as pretty as can be, thanks to taxpayer incentives.

Even Arlington's neighbors here in North Texas couldn't resist deriding Williams' plan.  Of course, a lot of that derision was more envy than fiscal propriety:  Arlington is one of the few cities in the state with such a successful record at financing sports venues while also having a relatively low sales tax rate.

In fact, the Rangers know Arlington has the money to spend if voters give the go-ahead, so in a sense, Williams didn't have a lot of negotiating room.

But half the cost of a new stadium?  To replace a facility touted as engineered to remain robust for a century?  When it's less than a third of its way into that lifespan?  The Rangers ownership says they have to remain competitive with what sports fans demand from the entertainment experience.  And baseball, like any sport, is a business now.  Genuine sports are only for backyards anymore.

Tonight, Arlington's city council isn't going to vote on allowing part of its sales tax revenue to fund the new stadium.  Tonight's council vote is a formality to officially place this proposal on November's ballot.  If the council approves placing the ballpark funding measure on the ballot, Arlington voters will be deciding its fate on the same day we vote for our next president.

At this point, although a number of Arlington leaders suspect that voters will ultimately approve this measure, nobody seems entirely confident.  A surprisingly vocal opposition has begun percolating about the city, from people as varied as left-wing environmentalists concerned about so much wasteful air conditioning, to Tea Party activists decrying the waste of sales tax dollars on private enterprise.  Crony capitalism, they call it, and both Tea Partiers and environmentalists have valid points.

Supporters of the newer new stadium scoff at their detractors, deriding such negativity while at the same time, ironically, playing the fear card, and warning Arlington residents that if we don't approve this measure, we'll probably end up driving all the way over to evil Dallas to watch our former hometown heroes play baseball.

But can Dallas afford to spend sales tax revenue on a new ballpark?  Where would Dallas' new ballpark be?  Most of the desirable land in and around the city's resurgent downtown core is exceptionally pricey.  The cheap land is just across the Trinity River in parts of town most suburban baseball fans would balk at entering.  And Dallas city hall isn't known for being business-friendly, or for its council members being friendly to each other.  Could they cooperate on such a politically-volatile plan like Arlington's city council has done?  When we North Texans think of Big D, the "D" usually stands for "dysfunction."

Several years ago, when the Dallas Cowboys NFL franchise wanted to leave its dowdy long-time home in suburban Irving, a number of Dallas leaders proposed rebuilding the old Cotton Bowl for them in their city's derelict Fair Park neighborhood, southeast of downtown.  After all, back in the team's early days, the Cotton Bowl used to be the Cowboys' home; what else could better represent a revitalized Dallas but the triumphant return of its hometown football team?

But Dallas' various factions of politicians and business groups couldn't agree on how to pull it off, so the Cowboys ended up moving to... Arlington, where voters approved another sales tax funding mechanism for the team's current, gleaming, Super-Bowl-hosting stadium.

There are a handful of other municipalities here in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, such as Plano, Frisco, Irving, or Grapevine, that might be able to swing a deal similar to Arlington's proposal.  But in those cities, access to sales tax funds are questionable, and land costs are significant.  What helps make Arlington's plan work is that the parking designated for the new stadium's site is already owned by the city and the team.  And Arlington is already home to many die-hard Rangers voters who would be easier to convince regarding this project's merits than voters in other cities who may be more ambivalent or hostile towards such an expensive and controversial funding mechanism.

As it is, the main take-away from Arlington's proposal seems to be that Williams and the council are giving away too much too early in the process.  It's been said that Williams was being proactive in negotiating with the team, but if you blink too soon, how proactive has that negotiation been?  All we know for certain is that the Rangers ownership knows it's their company - after all, any Major League Baseball franchise is really just a company - for Arlington to lose.

Some Arlington voters are frustrated and angry at Williams and the council over this plan.  Instead, even if this plan is a boondoggle, the real frustration and anger should probably be directed at the team's ownership.  Each of them are exceptionally wealthy men in their own right, and they haven't made their millions by leaving money on any table.

It doesn't matter to them who pays for what they want - so long as it's not them.  But is that genuine capitalism?

We voters will get to have our say in November.

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