Thursday, April 10, 2014

Some random thoughts on a new arena

First, it is extremely difficult to make a strong arguments that taxpayers should subsidize an arena. While studies go all over the place, my sense is that it is very difficult to show that subsidized arenas generate enough measurable economic activity to yield a positive ROI. Mostly, they shift entertainment dollars that would be spend on other things.

Second, it is possible to argue that there is a net gain to the locale where a facility is located. A downtown arena may shift entertainment dollars downtown and that leaves the downtown commercially stronger than it otherwise would be. If that's so, then the reluctance of suburban counties to contribute to the cost of an arena makes sense. While people throughout the region may use the arena (and pay the price of admission when they do), the economic benefits aren't felt throughout the region. If one of the purposes of a new arena is to attract suburban dollars to downtown Milwaukee, it's hard to make a case that suburban communities should be compelled to pay for the privilege.

Third, the analysis is complicated by the fact that an arena - and the professional sports team it attracts - can result in benefits that are difficult to measure. If the primary benefits of an arena are the jobs that a facility and the events that it hosts directly benefit, then the case for compelling people to pay for it (because, after all, that's what taxation is - a compulsory taking of people's money) is weak.

But it could be that there are intangible benefits to being a "major league" city and having a vibrant downtown that go beyond the direct benefits associated with sporting events and concerts. Maybe these things make a city a more attractive location for businesses and talented people. If that's true, then the argument that this is a regional responsibility becomes more compelling.

Fourth, if an arena is indeed a powerful generator of economic benefits, we should ask ourselves why any tax money should be needed in order to make it happen. At the very least, one might want to ask why the benefited businesses should not be expected to repay the cost of public contributions to private profit.

Finally, Common Ground's announcement that it "will not support" the new arena is, at best, irrelevant and, at worst, tone deaf. It may be irrelevant because, really, who cares what Common Ground is a fairly standard left wing organization and its constituency may not be critical to the arena decision. It's not apparent to me that they have the political clout to be a player in this.

It may be tone deaf - and a mistake - because many of the people inclined to support more funding for youth athletic facilities will resent Common Ground trying to hold an arena hostage by insisting on a "poison pill" of $ 150-250 million in additional taxation to benefit part of the region. If an arena can't happen without spending on youth facilities in that amount, there will probably be no arena.

I don't know if a case can be made for that level of spending on youth athletic facilities in Milwaukee County or not. My guess is that there are more compelling uses for that money.

I understand that Common Ground believes that better youth athletic facilities are a more compelling need than an arena, although comparing the cost of an arena to a demand for a particular amount for youth facilities seems to be comparing apples to oranges. I also appreciate why it may believe that they may be more able to block funding for an arena than they would be able to obtain funding for youth athletic facilities. They are trying to leverage what they may be able to do into something that they otherwise could not.

But I suspect that they are overreaching.

Cross posted at Purple Wisconsin

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