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Ballpark Village Idiots? 

Legislators ready massive corporate welfare for "Missouri's Team"

The St. Louis Cardinals have only 30 legislator-shopping days left until their own little Christmas in May, when they should be handed the first piece of the quarter-billion taxpayer dollars they seek for a new stadium.

It's pretty much a done deal. Just as their erstwhile business partner George W. Bush has the nation debating the size of enormous tax cuts for the rich, the Cardinal owners have craftily shifted the discussion from "Why do something so stupid?" to "How much stupidity is appropriate?"

Missouri legislative committees have approved measures giving the Cardinals the largest corporate-welfare gift in state history. But is there any discussion of the propriety of taxpayers' further enriching billionaires (collectively speaking) who undeniably could afford to finance the stadium privately?


A splendid example was provided last Thursday by one of the team's owners, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which, in a moment of editorial ferociousness, proclaimed that "the club's owners can well afford to kick in a bigger share of the new stadium's cost." (It's not clear why the paper abandoned the traditional editorial "we.")

What did the paper mean by a "bigger share" from the Cardinals? Well, it seems that a House-committee proposal to cap the state's corporate-welfare gift at $9.5 million per year for decades has been countered by a Senate-committee plan to provide a paltry $8 million per year for decades in Missouri tax dollars for the noble cause of meeting the team's ransom demands.

So, take that, you spoiled Country Day boys. You're only getting $8 million a year for decades from us -- not a penny more.

"With an $8 million cap and a piece of the action, the deal makes good sense for Missouri" is how the Post put it.

It does?

If we lived under capitalism, the $8 million-per-year deal would only make "good sense for Missouri" were it reduced by $8 million per year. The same can be said for the city's share of this deal, which likely would be almost as much as the state's annual gift despite its own destitute financial position.

This is a project that will generate tens of millions in new annual revenue for a private company and, over time, will increase by hundreds of millions the profitability and net worth of the company's billionaire owners, as well as the salaries of its millionaire employee-athletes. Exact figures aren't available because, well, the team maintains they're none of the public's business.

Maybe the Post should sue itself and its partners under the Sunshine Law for more information.

Ah, but who's keeping score anyway? Even as the stadium deal is sold in the name of protecting a civic treasure -- "the Cardinals would truly become Missouri's Team," beams the Post -- the public isn't allowed to know who's actually reaping these gigantic rewards, because the owners refuse to disclose who owns what share of the franchise.

We do know Missouri's Team (they'll love that in Kansas City) is largely owned by non-Missourians. Of its 17 owners, only six live in Missouri [Hartmann, "Switch Hitters," RFT, Feb. 14]. It's widely assumed that majority control rests with Bill DeWitt Jr. (and the six other Cincinnati owners), but the question is never raised outside these pages.

Mind you, ownership breakdown isn't the central issue here -- this giveaway would be atrocious were Missouri's Team limited to lifelong Missourians -- but its nondisclosure does illustrate how sick this deal is. Should the out-of-state owners cash out after using tax dollars to enhance their asset value by $100 million-plus, it would be the all-time example of reverse economic development.

Never mind all that, we're told: This is about saving downtown.

Build these fellows a new stadium, and a Ballpark Village will magically sprout on the adjacent streets, transforming downtown into Wonderland. Dare to dream with us, for crying out loud.

The Post proclaimed last month that "Ballpark Village as proposed would have: 408 residential units; 475,960 gross square feet of office space; 114,120 gross square feet of shops, restaurants and neighborhood services and 111,000 gross square feet of entertainment, including [an] aquarium."

Interesting. Because the new stadium would be right next to the old one -- with the same people coming to it -- how do these individuals suddenly constitute a market for a Ballpark Village if there hasn't been one in the precise same spot for the past 35 years?

Why would people suddenly be falling all over themselves to live next to a stadium? Far be it from me to question the demand for such housing -- we all dream of having tens of thousands of strangers traipse though the frontyard periodically -- but it's hard to understand why the mere fact of new stadium construction would attract new residents in the very spot where an old stadium didn't.

Ditto for all those new commercial tenants and those new restaurants and retail shops of the Ballpark Village. And, of course, for that exciting new aquarium, which a bona fide, out-of-town, successful aquarium developer once told the Post might be possible were that new stadium built.

Do you suppose the new stadium will spawn as much bustling commercial activity as, say, the Trans World Dome and the Savvis Center have? Those two sparkling projects have done for their surrounding blocks precisely what their naming rights have done for TWA and Savvis Communications.

The reason is obvious: Stadiums are revenue-gobbling destinations, not business incubators. People spend far too much time and money (even more at a new stadium) to be interested in a shopping spree with the kids before or after a sporting event.

In rare cases in other markets -- happily cited by the Cardinals and their civic apologists -- a new stadium has helped resuscitate a dying neighborhood. But, hello? They weren't built on the same spot where an old stadium had failed to make an impact.

How about a little common sense here, people? Is that asking too much?

Sadly, with Christmas coming in May for Missouri's Team, I think it is.

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