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High-Dollar Stadiums In A Low-Rent Economy

REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

More than $2 billion worth of baseball parks officially open this week in New York City. That's a lot of money for a city still trying to clean up the financial wreckage from last fall's market crash. The Mets and Yankees are expected to draw eight million fans this year, but not every New Yorker is cheering for new baseball stadiums as the best use of public resources.

NPR's Mike Pesca has more.

MIKE PESCA: The argument against new baseball stadiums goes something like this: A baseball stadium now? The mayor threatened to lay off 14,000 teachers earlier this year. The city slashed $3 billion from its budget, and you're building baseball stadiums?

The counterargument goes something like this: What are you, a Red Sox fan? Well, that's just one counterargument. Here's another one more specific to the Mets' new ballpark Citi Field, provided by Texas Congressman Ted Poe, who doesn't like the new name.

Representative TED POE (Republican, Texas): Our struggling friends at Citigroup have plenty enough to plaster their name on a new ballpark and keep hot-dollar offices and secretaries for ex-CEOs. The coach at Citigroup is making cuts to the roster at every other position, but it seems the luxury suites won't be traded. Citigroup is striking out when it comes to wise usage of taxpayer money.

PESCA: The protests of that Astros fan aside, a contract's a contract, and the Mets are happy to sell their naming rights for $400 million over 20 years. Citigroup would never have signed that deal today.

A local legislator, New York Assemblyman Richard Brodsky has been the biggest splinter in the Yankee's bat. Here on station WNYC, he lays out some of the problems he has with their stadium deal.

Mr. RICHARD BRODSKY (Assemblyman, New York State Assembly): It's socialism for the Yankees and capitalism for the rest of us, and we need to stop pouring public money into private hands if the public gets nothing back.

PESCA: The phrase Brodsky used, public money, may be misleading. Unlike other places, New York didn't just dip into the Treasury to pay for new stadiums. The city didn't issue a levy or raise taxes. Instead, the stadium's costs are being paid by the purchasers of tax-exempt bonds. That's the public money part.

New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg rejects Brodsky's entire premise.

Mayor MICHAEL BLOOMBERG (Republican, New York City): We built these stadiums with private money, and the state and the city put in a relatively small amount for infrastructure, which is incidentally the job of the state and the city. That's what we're supposed to do.

PESCA: Of course, the relatively small amount for infrastructure was in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Also unmentioned in those comments was the fact that the mayor's office had attempted to negotiate a luxury suite for itself in the new Yankee Stadium. The public reacted to that request like Yankee fans once reacted to pitcher Ed Whitson - baseball reference translated: They booed him off the mound.

But the suite pullback was one of a few concessions made to critics of the stadium deals. The relative smooth sailing may seem odd in a place like New York City, where huge projects are often blocked by motivated citizens and outraged legislators.

Smith College economist Andrew Zimbalist suggests that may be because the city actually struck a pretty good deal.

Professor ANDREW ZIMBALIST (Economics, Smith College): In the case of a privately-financed stadium like this one, during a recession, I think, you're generating economic activity. You're not depleting the treasury. The treasury of New York City, the treasury of New York state are contributing somewhere in the neighborhood of $150 to $200 million. But the amount of tax revenue that is going to flow to them as a result of the private investments that were being made, I think, will more than offset that.

PESCA: Zimbalist, it's important to note, has often been the bane of the greedy baseball owner. He has written the definitive book on why taxpayer-funded stadiums are a boondoggle, but he thinks that New York got the best deal it could hope for.

The numbers he quoted will never be agreed to by all sides. But the city's publicly-funded, nonpartisan, independent budget office estimated that the Yankee's deal will cost the city $362 million; the Mets agreement, $138 million.

The stadium deals could also become an issue in the upcoming mayor's race, unless the Mets or Yankees win the World Series. Then, any sane politician will just want to don a team cap and get a good spot in the parade.

Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mike Pesca
Mike Pesca first reached the airwaves as a 10-year-old caller to a New York Jets-themed radio show and has since been able to parlay his interests in sports coverage as a National Desk correspondent for NPR based in New York City.