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Some Owners’ Rx for Economy: Build a Stadium

Wed March 11, 2009 - National Edition

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) If you build them, they will save the economy.

Sports executives from Miami to Minneapolis and Portland, Ore., to Washington, D.C., are lobbying for the construction of new stadiums as a way to help break the recession’s grip — saying they will put thousands of hard hats to work and create new permanent jobs as unemployment spirals up. Stadium foes, meanwhile, see such claims as exaggerated and even cynical during the economic crunch.

Reviving neighborhoods and boosting business are always arguments for building ballparks with public money, but the pitch is changing with the times as cities and states wrestle with billions of dollars in deficits.

Minnesota lawmakers heard in February that a $954 million Vikings stadium would employ 8,000 construction workers, another 5,400 people supported by construction-related spending and 3,400 in the new facility. Team vice president Lester Bagley called it a “significant jobs and economic stimulus package.”

State lawmakers say the timing could scarcely be worse. Minnesota is trying to figure out how to solve a $4.6 billion deficit, equal to about 13 percent of the state budget.

“We’re just hearing heart-wrenching stories about how these budget cuts are literally going to affect people’s lives in very profound ways, particularly in health care. It just becomes very questionable in terms of the state’s priorities and values, to look at public funding for a stadium,” said Rep. Frank Hornstein, a Democrat from Minneapolis.

Another opponent, however, worries that the good news argument of more jobs will be too much for politicians to resist.

“People are so hurting, it’s like throwing a mirage at them in the middle of the desert,” said the Rev. Ricky Rask of Minneapolis. “They’re going to keep pushing it because people are scared.”

So far, the fight-the-recession pitches from stadium proponents are not an attempt to cash in on federal stimulus dollars, with the franchises proposing things like taxes on tourism, alcohol or tickets.

In Miami, the final votes are expected later this month on a $515 million Florida Marlins ballpark backed by tourist taxes. Supporters say it would help in hard times.

“How better to stimulate our economy than to provide 2,000 well-paying construction jobs in our community over the next three years?” said Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Alvarez in February.

Critics say the permanent jobs would be mostly low-wage, and the deal would tie up tourist taxes that could go to other priorities, such as upgrading convention facilities to draw more tourists. In both Miami and Minnesota, the teams propose to pick up roughly a quarter of the stadiums’ cost.

“If we’re going to use this much in public funding I want to create better, higher-paying, more upwardly mobile jobs than a hot dog vendor and a parking attendant for 81 games a year,” said Michael Burnstine of the Coalition Against Marlins Bailout.

Seekers of Major League Soccer stadiums also are using economic stimulus to make their case.

A study commissioned by the Maryland Stadium Authority found that a D.C. United arena in suburban Maryland outside Washington, D.C., would create 1,000 jobs. In Oregon, Portland civic leaders are aiming to draw an expansion team by renovating an existing minor-league baseball stadium and then building a new park for the displaced Triple-A Beavers, generating paychecks for an estimated 600 construction workers and 300 permanent employees.

Backers of both projects claim taxpayers won’t feel the pinch because sports fans will pay much of the cost, and they said they will stimulate the economy only if lawmakers approve them quickly.

“It may seem like strange timing — but you’re talking about no impact to you, you’re talking about jobs, you’re talking about economic growth attracting investment. This is when we need that most,” said Merritt Paulson, the minor-league baseball and soccer owner orchestrating the stadium plan in Portland.

In Minnesota, the Vikings have yet to outline the specifics of where the public financing for their new venue would come from, even as a new Twins ballpark and University of Minnesota football stadium take shape under the hands of construction crews. Those deals were sealed three years ago, before the recession.

The commission that runs the Metrodome, where the Vikings play, presented an economic impact study of the project to a legislative committee in February while the team sat on the sidelines.

Opponents of public financing for a stadium are gearing up to fight the Vikings’ effort.

One group is Taxpayers United for Rational Football Funding, or TURFF. Laura Lehmann, a local physician who started the organization, said the stadium-as-stimulus message is preying on the financial insecurities of the entire Twin Cities area.

Will Shapira of Minneapolis, has vehemently opposed spending tax dollars on sports for years.

“There’s no reason why the public should fund a stadium for a millionaire, a multimillionaire or a billionaire,” Shapira said. “It’s outrageous. It’s arrogant. They’re extortionists at heart. My favorite term for them is public bloodsuckers.”

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