Distressed municipalities will often turn to anything they think will help with economic development.
Casinos and big-box stores, two Connecticut staples, offer the allure of jobs and increased tax revenues, yet they also come with their own sets of liabilities such as sprawl and assorted social problems. But those endeavors, flawed as they are, are typically financed with private capital and are open to some level of public scrutiny.
Professional sports franchises, on the other hand, often demand and receive taxpayer funds to build stadiums or relocate from ostensibly less desirable cities. Fortunately, they too operate mostly in the open when trying to get a favorable deal from a new host city. Such a level of transparency can benefit both parties as it can apply pressure on politicians to cut a favorable deal. Conversely, a lack of transparency can embolden public officials to simply give away the store.
One of the worst recent examples of a secretive process that got out of hand is right here in Connecticut. A month ago, Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra announced — right out of left field, so to speak — that he would spend up to $60 million to build a 9,000-seat stadium for the New Britain Rock Cats to lure the team to the Capital City.
Mind you, Hartford is so short on cash that it’s selling off a parking garage this year to balance its budget, so this announcement not only took observers by surprise but it left many of them shaking their heads in disbelief that a nearly-broke city would spend millions to lure a Double-A franchise whose economic value to the depressed North End would be dubious at best.
Economists have overwhelmingly concluded that the economic benefits metropolitan areas experience from the presence of professional sports franchises are usually exceeded by the size of the subsidy needed to attract them in the first place. Team owners and politicians talk a good game about how the new franchise will reinvigorate cities, grow the economy, and create jobs.
But sports franchises, especially those in the minor leagues, don’t employ a lot of people. And the economic numbers for the Rock Cats sound wildly inflated. A study commissioned and paid for by the city projects the move to Hartford could generate $8.1 million in revenue in its first year — an amount that exceeds all but 11 minor league franchises in the country. Even the Triple-A Pawtucket Red Sox, located less than 40 miles south of its legendary parent at Fenway Park, generated only $6.2 million last year.
The most laughable statistic in the report is that 700 people will sleep in hotels near the stadium after a game. That’s four times as many as the number that stays in town when the UConn men’s or women’s basketball teams play in Hartford. And the Huskies have a much higher attendance than the Rock Cats could ever dream about.
That said, these types of overly optimistic assumptions are typical of consultants. As hired guns, they want to please the master and set the stage for more work down the road. So the overly rosy projections are de rigueur, if still unacceptable.
But there’s no excuse for the level of secrecy prior to the grand unveiling of the stadium plan at a dramatic news conference on June 4. Nor should we be pleased with Segarra’s pompous announcement a few days later on Face The State that the move was “a done deal.” Both should leave a far worse taste in our mouths than the rainbows and unicorns promised in consultant’s report.
Adding insult to injury, city officials made the boneheaded pro-forma move to hold a “public hearing” on Wednesday — a full three weeks after Segarra’s now infamous “done deal” proclamation.
And The Courant’s Kevin Rennie uncovered another gem. The Rock Cats deal includes a luxury suite for city officials. Perfect. Let’s give the little people one more reason to be angered by this dopey arrangement.
Segarra and his minions have handled this episode so poorly that it inspires little confidence in their ability to lead Hartford. It’s one thing to mismanage the Capital City but it’s quite another to lead state taxpayers, who foot the bill for half the city’s budget, on a wild goose chase. Perhaps members of the City Council will come to their senses and put the kibosh on a deal that benefits only themselves and the wealthy Boston real estate developers who own the Rock Cats.
I know. I know. I’m expecting too much of politicians. But can’t I dream?
Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com and is news editor of The Berkshire Record in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill.