White Elephant Syndrome

In his column, Metronomics, Andrew Thompson debunks the myth that sports stadiums equal an economic boon for cities.

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My colleague Isaiah Thompson at Philadelphia City Paper wrote an excellent story last week about questionable dealings involved in the building of a new soccer stadium in Chester, PA, a city outside Philadelphia with an industrial glory-days past and post-industrial frustrations ahead. The agreement between the stadium’s developers and groups in Chester was that an allotment of monies granted to build the project would go towards building a mixed-use property with housing and a supermarket, which would be the first in the city. So far, that proposal hasn’t seen a dime towards its realization.
Thompson’s piece focused on where, exactly, the money is for this side-project and why it remains invisible, an in doing so raised an important point that academics and urban analysts have been touting for some time: Sports stadiums do not guarantee bonanzas. From the article:

The stadium’s supporters, of course, emphasize the benefits the stadium would bring to Chester through sheer magnetism —hotels, restaurants, that intangible sense of momentum.

But that’s an old line.

“They say, ‘If we build it, those things will come.’ They say it in every city and it never happens,” says Villanova sociology professor Rick Eckstein…Recently, Eckstein says, economists and scholars have begun to catch on. So stadium backers have had to change tactics. “The only way politically to do this now is to have a larger project,” Eckstein says. “Now it’s stadiums, plus convention centers, plus commercial — they’re very careful to say that it’s not just the stadium, it’s the whole thing.”

Indeed, in applying for public money for the Chester Waterfront Redevelopment Project, The Team promised very specific economic benefits — namely, jobs and the leveraging of hundreds of millions of dollars in private investment.

And most of those benefits are associated not with the stadium, but with the mixed-use development.

It hardly takes lengthy statistical analysis to think of a few cities whose stadiums haven’t yanked them from the same post-industrial quagmires that Chester is stuck in: Cleveland, St. Louis, Detroit, Philadelphia, Chicago, Oakland, and on and on until a list is checked off of nearly every city that has a sports team. Brad Humphrey, professor of sports, recreation and tourism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, came to an even more absolute conclusion: His 2004 study found that there was not a single instance – not one – in which a sports stadium positively impacted a city’s economy. In fact, “The net economic impact of professional sports in Washington, D.C., and the 36 other cities that hosted professional sports teams over nearly 30 years, was a reduction in real per capita income over the entire metropolitan area,” the study says.

Pennsylvania provided millions of dollars in grants to build the stadium, as did New York in renovating the stadiums of the Yankees and Mets. But if the jury has already reached a verdict on the potential benefits of stadiums, why the massive public investments?

Part of it is undoubtedly the allure of grand coliseums that will reflect the glory of the city itself. Using stadiums to bolster public morale has coursed through the West’s blood for centuries. But part of the appeal on the part of lawmakers may be that people notice white elephant projects more than they would see mundane facilities like supermarkets. A stadium can be pointed to as a testament to political effectiveness – one salient to a large swath of the public – but it’s easier to snooze at something less grandiose. And voters aren’t likely to forget it come election season.

However, if the evidence so absolutely points to inefficacy of stadiums as economic boosters, politicians need to abandon them as magic bullets to slay the problems of economies with deeply entrenched problems. The athletic entertainment may induce temporary forgetfulness of a city’s hardship, but the problems of post-industrial economies can’t be recreated away.

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Tags: philadelphiabuilt environmentdetroitgovernance

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