Ballpark Pillage

Proposed Cardinals boondoggle gives new meaning to fuzzy math

The new, improved stadium deal unveiled last week had one unmistakable similarity to the old, bad deal:

Three years from now, your government is going to pay to blow up Busch Stadium -- a beloved, vibrant and thoroughly functional place -- and it's going to do so for the sole purpose of further enriching billionaire owners and millionaire baseball players.

As if that weren't awful enough, your government is going to float $200 million in tax-exempt bonds -- at a cost of $431 million taxpayer dollars over the next 30 years -- to subsidize the billionaires' new stadium in the same city that cannot offer decent pay to police officers, firefighters, schoolteachers and other public employees. There's no money for a public hospital, but St. Louis seems to be rolling in cash for a private stadium.

Mayor Francis Slay and Gov. Bob Holden explained the inexplicable at a giddy news conference, along with Cardinals owner William O. DeWitt Jr., who was cast, incredibly, in the role of gracious loser to the public's hardball negotiators. It turns out this is actually a $431 million free lunch for taxpayers.

It's all coming out of "new" revenues, we're told. Can't give you specific numbers, of course, but trust us -- complex formulas have been concocted to protect the public forever.

On one hand, the politicians are all about informing you, the esteemed taxpayer, about the worthiness of the deal. On the other hand, it is impossible for you to understand, so don't try figuring this out at home.

That said, the fuzzy math doesn't add up, at least not so far. Obtaining $13 million in new annual tax revenues would seem to require an impossibly high level of new gross revenues by the team, given existing tax rates.

Even if the numbers could be inflated and twisted -- as is custom -- to project economic utopia with certainty, the politicians would almost certainly be using "casino economics" (my phrase), wherein it is assumed that all dollars spent in a new establishment are new dollars that don't come out of someone else's hide.

Every restaurant in town (and many retailers) can tell you that "new" casino spending is accompanied by reduced spending at their businesses, but this is never considered when casinos project their revenue "benefits" to the state. That's a key reason rosy projections aren't converted to reality.

In the same vein, there's only one entertainment pie in St. Louis, and to pretend that adding tens of millions to spending at the baseball stadium won't mean eating a chunk of that pie somewhere else is nonsense.

So much for "new" revenues.

For the moment, sadly, we can't delve into this subject in further detail, because the Cardinals refuse to reveal the projected gross revenues on which the parties' grandiose claims are predicated. The refusal to disclose gross revenues -- hardly a trade secret -- is the ultimate red flag on this deal.

Aside from that little private detail, the fellows are happy to chatter away.

Slay and Holden congratulated themselves on having extracted stunning concessions from the Cardinals: The team would have to put in $18 million more than it wanted, compensate for lost property taxes, even agree to give the governments a share of the proceeds were they to sell the team.

But the most important thing is that this stadium would be just a small part of Ballpark Village, a grand and glorious development that will magically bring to downtown the residential, commercial and retail prosperity that the free-enterprise system has overlooked for the past four decades. And the Cardinals would guarantee that if it didn't materialize, they'd actually pay the city and state the same revenues as if it had.

You had to feel sorry for poor DeWitt and his partners: How much public humiliation should these Cincinnati-based businessmen be expected to endure just to get a lousy $431 million in corporate welfare?

Obviously humbled, DeWitt admitted that the deal was "great" for the city, county and state. And for the team? Well, it was enough to assure that this struggling enterprise could remain "competitive" on behalf of the fans and the city.

Whatever.

St. Louis would hand nearly a half-billion dollars to a group of businessmen -- with a net worth of more than $4 billion (according to the St. Louis Business Journal) -- for the privilege of building a new stadium that we don't want and that they could easily afford to build for themselves. For the privilege of keeping our team where it was for decades before the Cincinnati group bought it.

And we the people are the winners here?

This is like losing a baseball game 27-2 but noting that we outscored the opposition in the eighth inning. St. Louis hasn't enjoyed such a coup since we tricked the late Harry Ornest into selling us our hockey team and arena for $20 million or so.

Did you happen to note the "details" that are missing here?

Tax revenues are specific. Team revenues are a Secret of the Tomb.

It's impossible to reveal something as simple as what share of proceeds would come back to the public in the event of a team sale. Ditto for the actual amount of the team's "backing" of the Ballpark Village fiasco.

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