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D.C. Baseball's White Elephant Is Running Wild

By Sally Jenkins
Friday, November 12, 2004; Page D01

The new baseball stadium is already a drain on Washington, D.C., and ground hasn't been broken yet. The project grows more illogical by the day. You really think a publicly funded baseball stadium is going to be good for the municipality, after watching the quarreling of the last week? Allow me to voice a small but nagging suspicion: The mayor and the city council could be devoting such energy, attention and argument to better things than a ballpark.

Perhaps as early as this week, Mayor Anthony A. Williams and his colleagues on the city council will probably pass a publicly funded stadium deal, over the objections of two thirds of city residents and contrary to all good advice. Why?


City council chairman Linda Cropp prefers private funding for stadium. (Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)

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"Politicians have an edifice complex," says David Boaz, executive vice president of the Cato Institute. "They like to be seen building big things."

But this thing is a big cheat. Williams's statements on the costs and benefits are alternately wrong or bogus, and in either case, you have every right to feel cheated that your local politicians don't show this kind of devotion and creativity to bigger problems. You also have a right to feel that your representatives have been robbed of common sense. For example: This week, District Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp was accused of Reneging and Political Maneuvering because she tried to save the city oh, I don't know, maybe a hundred million dollars.

That's the kind of moral confusion and rot this stadium deal has plunged the city into.

It's actually very clear: Sixty-nine percent of residents don't want to use public funds to pay for a stadium. They don't want to give Major League Baseball a half-billion-dollar subsidy out of taxpayers' pockets. Not a single independent economic study bears out the mayor's claim that a public-funded stadium will be a boon to the local economy. Yet the mayor has willfully ignored these facts -- until he was forced to pay attention by Cropp's sudden desertion and attempt to do a better deal. Personally, I don't call that "serving the people."

Cropp, whatever you think of her or suspect her motives to be, has done one good thing, something the mayor hasn't. She's listened to her constituents. She's heard the small- and medium-sized business owners and residents who will bear an unfair and disproportionate tax burden. Pepco and Verizon can easily stand the tax hits the stadium will cost, but people who run vegetable markets can't.

Cropp has forced the mayor to pause and to consider private funding options. Some say she did it to position herself to make her own run for mayor, and let's be truthful, council members don't get this much attention for fixing potholes. But Cropp at least put herself on the more responsible and responsive side of the issue. What she gained politically remains to be seen. She could emerge from this as the woman who saved the city a fortune, or as That Witch Who Almost Killed Baseball.

"Even if you didn't like her proposal, she asked the question, what can we do to make this deal better?" says Ed Lazere, executive director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, a think tank devoted to studying lower income economic issues. "She rightly pointed out it was a bad deal for the District and fiscally irresponsible."

The mayor has apparently decided to let baseball be his defining issue. It indeed defines him. It defines him as a guy who ignored the wishes of his constituency in order to please an affluent few and is perhaps more than a bit optimistic about expenses. The mayor's office said a stadium project would cost $440 million; the city's chief financial officer, Natwar M. Gandhi, estimated the total package would be more like $530 million.

Williams has peddled the stadium deal under a false pretense. Baseball will be a great spiritual and recreational addition but not a financial one. If you really want to define the mayor through baseball, look at his reaction when the Cato Institute published a briefing paper on the fallacy that stadiums bring big economic benefits to cities. "I can't imagine why, with all the things happening in the world, the Cato Institute would take the time to analyze the impact of baseball in Washington, D.C.," Williams said.

The answer is that the Cato Institute is a think tank with a serious interest in efficient municipal policy, and its scholars live and work and pay taxes in the District. The mayor's irritated dismissal of independent academic research was a truly defining moment. "What struck me is, you've spent the last three years trying to get baseball here, with all the things wrong with the city, so where do you get off saying we shouldn't do one study?" Boaz said. "He's clearly spent a larger percentage of his time on this than anything else."

Apparently the mayor doesn't think the stadium issue is worth a rigorous study. But residents would find it worthwhile. The brief is easy reading at 12 pages long and it can be found on the Internet at www.Cato.org. It's entitled "Caught Stealing: Debunking the Economic Case for D.C. Baseball." Basically, it concludes that the mayor's claims of no cost to taxpayers and financial windfalls is "economic hand waving."

According to the brief, the mayor's numbers are spurious. Just one example: He claims the ballpark will create 360 jobs worth $94 million annually. In fact ballparks create notoriously low-paying, part-time jobs, such as concession vendors. Yet by the mayor's figures, that's $261,111 per job. He's using one heck of a multiplier. "The wonder is that anyone finds such numbers credible," the brief says.

The D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute has done its own homework on the mayor's stadium deal and finds all kinds of lousy concessions contained in it. The city would pay the new team for lost profits if the stadium is not done by March 2008. The city would assume not just the cost of building, but all expenses if there are unforeseen overruns. The city doesn't participate financially in the team's profits, just the cost.

Why is the mayor determined to make such a deal? Because it's glamorous and a lot easier to reap attention, photo ops and political rewards from a baseball team than to do the day-to-day work of fixing roads, repairing trains, shifting undermanned police forces, and worrying about whether drug enforcement is better accomplished through crime prevention or rehabilitation. "Those things are grubby and dirty and complicated," Boaz says, "while baseball stadiums are fun."

A baseball stadium will make the city look good. But it's the last thing the city needs.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company