The case for a downtown football stadium

February 06, 1996|By William L. Jews

IN BALTIMORE and in Annapolis, the talk this winter will revolve around the deal that would bring the Cleveland Browns to a new, 70,000-seat, state-of-the-art stadium in Camden Yards. Look upon the next 10 weeks as a drive to the goal line.

The Greater Baltimore Committee, the voice of business for the metropolitan area, will continue its long, difficult fight to return NFL football to Baltimore. Over the past decade, hundreds of thousands of dollars, not to mention thousands of volunteer hours by some of the region's top corporate leaders, have been invested in that effort. Now, with our objective finally in sight, we will redouble our efforts.

Our opponents are the critics of the deal between Browns' owner Art Modell and the state of Maryland who, inexplicably, want to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. These critics have used a strategy of incomplete information and hyperbole to try to turn both public sentiment and state legislators against the deal.

Flawed criticisms

We believe that a close examination of the deal, from both practical and economic viewpoints, shows the flaws in the thinking of these critics.

* The authorization to build a football stadium, if and when Baltimore secured a long-term lease for an NFL team, is already state law. It's been on the books for more than a decade. Then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer and members of the Maryland General Assembly approved the legislation for twin facilities for baseball and football in 1987. Despite ample opportunities to reconsider that action, the legislature has remained steadfast in its support of the law. To seriously question that commitment now, on the eve of finally returning an NFL franchise to Baltimore, seems almost unthinkable.

* The argument that $200 million in taxpayer dollars could be spent in better ways than a football stadium might be more persuasive except for one thing: no tax dollars are being used for construction of the stadium.

The Maryland Stadium Authority will combine cash on hand, revenue bonds and a portion of the proposed personal seat license fees to underwrite the construction costs of the new stadium. Revenues from a series of special sports lotteries will cover the Stadium Authority's debt service costs. Indeed, using conservative estimates, the state will collect more in direct taxes annually than it pays for debt service on the project.

* Critics say it's unfair that the Browns will pay no rent on their new stadium. The truth is, to take advantage of lower-interest tax-exempt bonds, rent cannot be charged. Instead, the team will pay for the year-round costs of operating and maintaining the stadium, ensuring that there will be no operating deficits during the term of the 30-year lease.

There are as many answers to the issues raised by critics of the Browns deal as there are harsh marks on a football field. But one final flurry of numbers might be instructive: an NFL franchise in Baltimore will spur $111 million in total annual economic impact, raise $9.2 million in direct taxes for state and city government, and create nearly 1,400 full-time equivalent jobs. And those statistics don't include increased retail sales and restaurant spending downtown before and after games.

An investment worth making

In short, the costs involved in bringing the Browns to Baltimore and building a new stadium are easily outweighed by the increased economic activity, the tax revenues and the jobs that will be created by the move. But, even if the state broke even on the deal, it still would be an investment worth making. The prestige and national exposure that goes along with being one of the elite NFL cities is of incalculable benefit. The tremendous response to Oriole Park brought national -- even international -- recognition to Baltimore. We have a great opportunity to repeat that success.

One final point needs to be made. The Maryland Stadium Authority, operating under the mandate given it by the state legislature, has entered into a binding lease with Cleveland Browns' owner Art Modell. Significant economic commitments have been made by both sides. While it's perfectly proper for legislators to ask questions about the agreement with the Browns, the state of Maryland cannot afford to renege on a deal made in good faith.

William L. Jews chairs the Greater Baltimore Committee.

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