First of all, I love football. Let it not be said that I am un-American, or if it is said that I am un-American, let it be because I think Boise State is better right now than any team in the SEC.
I’m also a Chargers fan. I was an eight-year-old with my father at San Diego Stadium for the Holy Roller game; I remember Kellen Winslow blocking the field goal against the Dolphins in the 17th overtime, and the frozen tundra playoff game in Cincinnati when a polar bear attacked Dan Fouts, and our city’s Super Bowl aspirations were thwarted until we had the Means to get there.
I also love stadiums (stadia, whatevs). They represent the highest level of civic opportunity, bringing tens of thousands of people together in a public space to experience the same thing at the same time. Plus, when done right, they’re simply majestic.
That said, I also recognize that every credible study has shown that NFL stadiums don’t generate significant marginal tax income for their municipality. This is because the money that is spent by attendees at the games isn’t money that comes from out of the area, it’s just money spent by residents and companies that they otherwise would spend on some other form of entertainment in the area.
In other words, the people at Chargers games aren’t the owners of the overseas factories from whom we buy our goods; the people at Chargers games are just us, spending our entertainment dollar there instead of at the zoo, a local concert, cafe or festival.
So, if we build a stadium, we should admit that, as awesome it will be, it’s an expense, not an investment. To say it’s an investment is like throwing a big party with tuition money and then telling our parents we spent it on “networking.” I mean, there’s a chance it might work out, but it’s about the fun, not the return on investment.
My understanding is that October’s late-night deal to lift the cap on downtown redevelopment money means that, now, an unlimited amount of tax revenue can be directed to the construction of a downtown stadium, without any voter approval. This money, while called “redevelopment money,” actually comes from the same “Scrooge McDuck-ian pile of money” as the city’s general fund, among other budgets.
The standing argument for taking more of that money from the city and giving it to redevelopment is that redevelopment will increase tax revenue and make a bigger pile of money for everybody. Which in many cases of redevelopment may be true. But, in the case of a stadium, it is demonstrably not true. That will be taken from the city (among) others, and will never come back or make the pie larger (or more McDuckian).
So, here we are. The city is in financial trouble, and needs us to authorize a sales tax increase (Prop. D) to help right the ship. I fully support that. We need a strong city and strong city services in order to have a great quality of life here. But meanwhile, city politicians have just changed the state law so that an unlimited amount of this money can be spent on building a stadium, without a public vote.
There was even a resolution in front of the City Council last week to ask the governor to veto the item allowing an unlimited amount of money to be spent on bulding a downtown stadium, and the City Council did not pass that resolution. So, it certainly appears that while we are being asked to help stablize municipal services, the city is sure keeping its option open to just funnel hundreds of millions of dollars to building a really great keg party downtown stadium, without a public vote.
When I’ve asked this question to my Prop.-D-supporting-friends, their response has been to point out that city services desperately need this money. I agree. But if the City Council plans to direct all this money to city services, why didn’t they ask our governor to veto the item allowing the money to go instead to a downtown stadium without a public vote?
If I’m missing some legal point here, please let me know. I’m not an expert on state or city law. But the dots seem pretty connectable to me; in a year or three there is going to be a political debate — but no public vote required — about whether to spend hundreds of millions of civic dollars on a downtown stadium. Prop. D will determine whether city finances are in good enough shape for the city’s politicians to spend that money and whether there will be a public outcry.
In other words, as far as I can tell, Prop. D is a funding bill for a really awesome downtown NFL stadium. Which is cool; I love stadiums. I’m just not ready to vote for the city to pay for one right now, given the financial distress of more basic, and important, city services.
Jay Porter is owner of The Linkery and El Take It Easy restaurants in North Park, and loves a late-night porkfest, but only if the pork is heritage breed and smoked over local oak. He lives in Golden Hill, San Diego.