In case you haven't read enough about baseball's return to Washington, here are a few more morning-after musings:
First, Mayor Anthony Williams, Sports and Entertainment Commission Chairman Mark Tuohey and Steve Green, the mayor's development guru, deserve a standing ovation for finally getting the deal done. Negotiating with Major League Baseball is a bit like trying to hug a skunk. Our boys kept their eye on the ball, waited for the right pitch and brought the team home. And the squeeze play with the council and the business community was artful, indeed.
Unfortunately, the economics of baseball are such that there simply is no way to have a viable team without some form of public subsidy. The amount of subsidy already in the system has generated player salaries and franchise prices so high that there's not enough money left over to pay market rent for a stadium. You can blame Congress and baseball's antitrust exemption for that.
Given that reality, there's logic to raising most of the money for that subsidy from baseball fans, through a tax on tickets and hot dogs and parking spaces at the stadium, which under the mayor's proposal would raise $15 million a year. Some of that money would have gone to the city treasury if there were no baseball team and people had spent their entertainment dollars on something else. But it's a good guess that two-thirds of it would be "new" money that a District ballclub would divert from Maryland and Virginia.
More troublesome is the $22 million that the mayor proposes to raise annually from a special "stadium tax" levied on the District's 2,000 largest businesses -- anywhere from $2,500 to $28,200 per year. It is a testimony to the strength of the Washington economy, and the civic-mindedness of the business community, that executives lined up in support of this new tax with virtually no dissent. But it sets a lousy precedent. Not only does it have the government subsidizing one particularly undeserving crew -- baseball team owners and players -- but it allows one group of privileged taxpayers to decide what public purposes they are willing to be taxed for. If these businesses are willing to pay for having baseball return to Washington, why not do it the old-fashioned, free-market way: invest in the team.
(One ironic sidelight: Even though Fannie Mae's chairman, Frank Raines, and director, Fred Malek, are part of the local group that aims to buy the Washington franchise, federal law exempts Fannie from paying the stadium tax. But fear not: A company spokesman assures that Fannie will "participate.")
Will the economic spinoff from a baseball team offset the public subsidy, as the mayor claims? No and yes.
Don't put much stock in those calculations about all the construction, ballpark, restaurant and hotel jobs that will be created, or the extra sales and income taxes that will be generated. The studies on this are pretty clear: Most of those benefits are just diverted from other tax-generating activities in the region that, if anything, generate better jobs with higher multipliers.
On the other hand, there is some evidence that the new ballpark can serve as a catalyst to the revitalization of the Anacostia River waterfront, where the mayor and his team wisely decided to locate it.
This isn't the case with every new stadium. Simply plunking one down on a highway exit in exurbia, or in the middle of an urban ghetto, has precious little economic impact, as they've found out in Arlington, Tex., and the Bronx.
But as Denver and San Francisco discovered -- and Washington itself with the MCI Center -- in cities with otherwise strong economies, strategically located stadiums can speed up revitalization of a neighborhood that would have happened anyway. In those cases, the financial payoff to the city, in the form of higher property values and new residents paying income taxes, has been huge.
Of course, even a well-located stadium in a thriving city can be a flop if the team is lousy and nobody shows up to cheer it on. That's the irreducible risk of investing public money in a baseball stadium. It's only in the movies that if you build it, they will come.
Steven Pearlstein can be reached at email@example.com.