Ramapo supervisor continues quest for baseball park
By Evan Weiner
August 30, 2010
(New York, N. Y.) -- Sometimes you have to ask the question. What motivates politicians to pursue a policy whereby they spend taxpayers’ money on money losing operations like baseball stadiums, football stadiums and indoor arenas for professional sports teams? Ramapo, New York Town Supervisor Christopher St. Lawrence is continuing his quest to bring an independent baseball league franchise to what once was a wooded area in his town about 30-35 miles north of Manhattan.
St. Lawrence is so gung ho about getting a 3,500-seat facility built on the taxpayers dime that he has decided that the results of last Tuesday's election which saw local voters turn down the stadium spending request by a 2 to 1 margin was a mirage. Yes the voters said no, but they were clearly mistaken. It wasn't the ballpark or the fact that St. Lawrence has an agreement with the financially-troubled Can-Am League to play at the facility that caused a landslide vote.
No, it was the stadium financial package. Ramapo residents did not want to put up $16.5 million for the stadium.
Ramapo residents welcome to the "Business and Politics of Sports." Ramapo now has a chance to join a select group of municipalities who voted down stadium or arena packages only to see elected officials overturn the result.
In sports, saying no to a stadium or an arena proposal doesn't mean no. In the mid-1990s, voters in Seattle, Pittsburgh, and Milwaukee voted against funding for new baseball parks and in Pittsburgh's case a new football stadium as well. Yet the Seattle Mariners ended up with a new, taxpayers funded ball park as did the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Milwaukee Brewers. Pittsburgh also built a new facility for the NFL Steelers.
In Charlotte, voters said no to spending $342 million for a new arena in June 2001 with a 15,000 vote majority. George Shinn took his National Basketball Association franchise to New Orleans in 2002. Charlotte spent $52 million to build an arena in the late 1980s. The structure opened in 1988 and by 1999, Shinn was pushing for a new Charlotte arena for his Hornets because the 11-year-old facility was outdated.
Once Shinn was gone, Charlotte decided that the city needed an NBA team and that the 2001 vote was a referendum on Shinn not the need for a new arena. The city was promised an expansion team by NBA Commissioner David Stern if elected officials came through on a promise to build a new arena. Charlotte Mayor Pat McCoury said one of the reasons that he wanted a new arena built in the city to replace the one that opened in 1988 was that the city would get free publicity every time Charlotte’s basketball team’s highlights were shown on ESPN.
The city spent $265 million to get back into the good graces of the NBA and in exchange, Bob Johnson bought the 2004 expansion team which moved into the new arena in 2005. Arena revenue streams from club seats, luxury boxes (two items that Shinn really did not have) were supposed to make a Charlotte team financially competitive. The franchise has had money problems since day one and the Charlotte Coliseum was demolished in June 2007 at the age of 19.
But in sports, saying no to a stadium or an arena proposal doesn't mean no. State politicians in Washington, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin decided that the voters really didn't intend to kill the ballparks and overturned the vote by taking it out of the voters' hands and passing state legislation raising taxes to build ballparks in Seattle and Milwaukee.
Weeks after the Seattle ballpark referendum was defeated, Washington Governor Mike Lowry on October 24, 1995 signed a bill which allowed King County to create a .017% sales tax, which was offset against the sales tax now collected by the state in King County. Other funding mechanisms included the sale of baseball stadium commemorative license plates as well as using money from sports theme lottery scratch games. Non baseball fans were hit as well as baseball fans for dining as a special stadium sales tax of .5% on restaurants, bars and taverns was levied for patrons in King County and as a special stadium sales tax of 2% on rental cars was implemented. The Mariners contributed $75 million.
The Kingdome was blown up in 2000 but the debt service lingers on until 2016.
In Pittsburgh, Plan B was enacted by city and Allegheny County politicians and money was found to build a new baseball park and a football stadium. Pittsburgh and Allegheny County residents were still paying off the debt on Three Rivers Stadium when the two new parks opened. Three Rivers Stadium was blown up in 2001 but the debt service wasn't.
In Milwaukee after voters said no in January 1995, the state houses (the assembly 52-47) and the state senate 16-15) said yes and sent a bill to Governor Tommy Thompson to sign that made taxpayers in Milwaukee, Racine, Waukesha, Washington, and Ozaukee Counties pay additional sales taxes 0.1% sales tax to cover 77.5% of the costs of the baseball stadium they didn't want. The tax is scheduled to end in 2014. The most interesting part of the Brewers/Wisconsin stadium deal came nine months after the October 6, 1995 vote by the state senate to approve the taxation. State Senator George Petak, a Republican from Racine, originally voted no because Racine had nothing to do with Milwaukee economically and Petak felt that Racine should not be included in the taxation method. Petak voted no but switched his vote which allowed the stadium package to pass by a vote.
Petak was recalled by Racine voters nine months later and ousted from office because of his support for the stadium financing scheme. But the stadium was built.
Politicians just cannot say no to sports. Yonkers, New York has been pushing to build a 6,500-seat baseball park for another independent baseball circuit, the Atlantic League for 10 years now but the project has not taken off. The former mayor, John Spencer, brought out the old and worn out axiom that the ballpark would be an economic engine---a notion that has been put to pasture by virtually everyone over the past two decades with stadium economic impact knowledge----but so far the stadium project remains on the drawing board.
Ramapo Supervisor St. Lawrence hasn't given up yet and probably doesn't know much about George Petak. For whatever reason, St. Lawrence plans to proceed with plans for the stadium that could cost taxpayers even more money. Ramapo could pay a higher interest rate on the 20-year bonds, which have been guaranteed by the Ramapo Local Development Corp., or vote to finance the stadium with town funds. Either way, Ramapo taxpayers stand to lose more than they will gain and the possibility of cutting needed town services becomes greater as stadiums and arenas are endless money pits for their owners. Just ask the people in Seattle, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee and Charlotte who said no and were told by elected officials, your vote didn't count and are paying and paying and paying for the facilities and cost overruns (Seattle and Milwaukee).
Evan Weiner is an award winning author, radio-TV commentator and speaking on "The Business and Politics of Sports." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org