If you’re not pissed off, you’re not paying attention: What Orlando could learn from St. Petersburg’s war over The Lens
Tomorrow, St. Petersburg will have a mayoral election. But that’s not the ballot’s main event. Rather, that’s a referendum from a group called Stop The Lens, whose signs you see literally everywhere in the city—on business windows, front yards, everywhere.
The Lens refers to the overhaul of the city’s landmark pier. The current version, a quite-dated upside-down pyramid, was shuttered a few months back to make way for the construction of a new pier, dubbed “The Lens” on account of its postmodern design. Truth be told, I kinda dig it. But a lot of people—a lot of people—don’t. In fact, Stop The Lens seems poised to, well, stop The Lens. A poll out last week found that 56 percent of voters were likely to vote against it, and only 34 percent were in favor. The electorate’s dislike of the new pier’s design may also take down the city’s mayor.
Here’s the thing: This isn’t a fight over public spending or corruption or anything nasty or sordid. It’s a battle—an entrenched, vituperative battle—over architecture. Architecture!
Contrast that to Orlando City Hall this morning, where we had yet another round of glad-handing and civic boosterism dressed up as a city council workshop. The performing arts center folks talked about how close they are to finishing this magnificent structure, just $25 million more, please. The Citrus Bowl backers promised the sun and the stars—NFL games! NCAA championships!—if only we’d add $12 million to their coffers. And then there was Orlando City Soccer, brandishing its $1.2 billion in economic impact and an MLS franchise if only taxpayers helped them build a spanking-new stadium.
This $95 million in proposed tourist taxes comes atop another $20 million from the city and potentially $30 million more from the state for the soccer stadium, as well as the $1.2 billion (plus interest!) the city spent on the downtown venues just six years ago.
And yet, there’s no outrage, no movement for change (excepting perhaps a small cadre of gadflies who are better at getting a quote in the paper than affecting public policy). Nor is there any sense of critical thinking. At this morning’s hearing, not one commissioner questioned the fundamental wisdom of having taxpayers subsidize professional sports facilities (of course, that horse left the barn the day the Amway Center opened) or blinked an eye at Orlando City’s economic impact assertions, even though economists are nigh-unanimous in thinking such studies—commissioned by the team, for the team—are hogwash. These studies, conducted all over the country by teams lining up at the public trough, tend to be, shall we say, overly optimistic. As Victor Matheson, an economist who has studied public funding of stadiums for decades now, recently told The Atlantic:
Take whatever number the sports promoter says, take it and move the decimal one place to the left. Divide it by ten, and that’s a pretty good estimate of the actual economic impact.
To be more specific, 85 percent of economists oppose taxpayer-subsidized stadiums. That, my soccer-loving friends, is a consensus, and it’s backed up by (most of) the economics literature. You don’t have to like the facts, but they are facts nonetheless.
There are of course plenty of non-economic reasons to support Orlando City’s stadium. The team has generated a crush of enthusiasm in just a few years, and its contribution to the venue—$30 million cash, another $10 million from a ticket surcharge—towers over that of Rich Devos for the Golden Pleasure Dome™, at least in terms of proportionality. The owners, though they haven’t deep roots here, have invested in this community in the form of youth sports and the like, all of which is fine and good and admirable, even if a cynic could note that they have a vested interest in winning us over.
But we need to, at the very least, be realistic about what we’re buying. There be some qualitative benefits, but not economic development.
Just for once, I’d love to see at least a little pushback, a little passion for something other than giving millionaires tax dollars with which to enrich themselves further. I’d love to see the city or county or anyone ask an actual economist what actual economists think about these projects. (Mark Soskin at UCF would be a good place to start.) I’d love to see the city’s media (especially on TV) do something more than parrot the team and mayor’s talking points. I’d love to see this town get actually pissed off about the fact that our glut of tourist tax money can go to hundred-million-dollar venue after hundred-million-dollar venue while our schools are substandard, our city is quantifiably dangerous, and our public transit system is a mess.
I’d love to see us be half as enraged about that as St. Petersburg is about its pier. I’d love to see something other than apathy.
The only person crying out in the wilderness is newbie Orange County Commission Pete Clarke. Last Monday, he sent out a memo asking that, in exchange for its largesse, the county get a stake in Orlando City: if the team does well, the county will do well, like any other investor. Everyone wins. As he noted:
Over the course of 23 years, the Magic have increased in value by $437.5 million, Orange County has contributed in the neighborhood of half a billion dollars and still [has] only 5 gyms to show for our contributions. If the Magic were sold, in the near future, Orange County would not have anything more to show for our contributions.
Deadspin, the Gawker-run sports site, called it “the best idea for stadium financing we’ve ever heard.” As writer Barry Petchesky puts it:
Under Clarke’s plan it would be, as Neil DeMause says, “an investment, not a gift.” It’s just so…logical. And it’ll never happen. Teams almost invariably get their stadiums without making concessions. Just look at the fawning from Orlando-area politicians when the preliminary deal was announced last week—you’ve never seen a group of people happier about agreeing to spend $55 million in public funds.
On his blog, Field of Schemes, DeMause elaborates on his statement:
As I’ve always said, the problem with the current stadium business isn’t that the public is putting up money, it’s that the public is putting up money without getting anything back. If Orlando could get an actual share of the stadium revenues—and it’d have to be gross revenues, mind you, not net profits, since it’s too easy for clubs to cook the books with the latter—then this could actually be an investment, and not just a gift.
No one on the city council, however, deigned mention Clarke’s proposal this morning. Why would they? Certainly no one, save Phil Diamond, the former commissioner who lost last year’s mayoral race, offered even the slightest protest when the city built a downtown basketball arena—even though the polling for the arena was godawful; 69 percent of Orange County residents thought the Magic weren’t contributing enough, and a 48 percent plurality didn’t want the damned arena at all—nor has anyone said boo as the city considers even more giveaways to the Magic.
This one’s on us, Orlando. Our politicians don’t give a shit because we don’t give a shit. If St. Pete voters can burn down the proposed pier and dance on its grave, surely we can demand some reasonably eminent concession in exchange for our tax dollars.