New business? No thanks, not here

February 18, 1996|By Barry Rascovar

WHAT IS IT about folks in Maryland that makes them so resistant to change and hostile to risk-taking? Time after time, state residents have rebelled against visionary public projects. Time after time, they were proved wrong.

The football-stadium controversy is the latest incarnation of this bizarre trend. It's a rip-off of the taxpayer, foes shout. It's an outrageous handout to a businessman. It's another sign of government's corruption.

Those same denunciations were made about Oriole Park, about the first and second bay bridges, about the rebuilding of Memorial Stadium for baseball, about Harborplace. Yet today, every one of these projects is looked upon with pride. Not one turned into a boondoggle. Every one gushed revenue. Yes, businessmen benefited, but so did taxpayers and Maryland's economy.

The same thing is likely to happen with the Camden Yards football stadium. For proof, look at Oriole Park. Critics, including TC legislative analysts, said it would never come close to fulfilling expectations. A consultant's report concluded the stadium's economic spending impact would be $17.8 million. No way, shouted the naysayers, just more government lies.

Wrong. In 1992, the actual economic impact, not counting revenue generated inside the stadium itself, was $52.8 million -- three times what had been projected. A second consultant study on out-of-town spending turned out to be too low by a factor of nearly four. A city planning department estimate on pre-game and post-game spending proved too cautious by some 25 percent. Where are the naysayers now?

Critics make a mistake in turning their noses up at an NFL team. Professional sports is big business. The new football stadium lured a company to Baltimore that brings with it a huge payroll in the tens of millions of dollars, a company that grosses hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

Why are some Marylanders so intense about wanting to send this newly arrived company packing?

Tepid response

That question should alarm state business leaders. Yet until last week, the response from the business community had been tepid. The Greater Baltimore Committee continues to dawdle on its promise to rally fan support; the Washington Board of Trade has ignored the coming to Maryland of a big sports corporation. Some members of the state Chamber of Commerce haven't made the connection between Maryland's perceived anti-business climate and hostility in the legislature to a pro-business initiative.

Yet the connection is there. Any time government tries to lure new companies to Maryland or assist existing companies, there are cries of ''corporate welfare'' and wasting tax dollars. You don't hear that reaction in Virginia or other states where residents understand the vital importance of economic growth fostered by government -- and by tax dollars.

Is this hostility to new visions and new government undertakings a result of the insular nature of our citizens? Could it be that we in Maryland are so tradition-bound, so comfortable in the status quo that we close our eyes to opportunities because they would mean change and risk-taking?

When you separate facts from fiction and set aside knee-jerk emotionalism, the football stadium deal holds vast potential. It costs few or no tax dollars. (Critics scoff at that notion but it is true.) It brings new economic development and hundreds of jobs to this region. The deal, as structured, assures no operating deficits. It means substantial tax revenue and economic activity.

Look at it another way: What would be the economic impact if the football stadium deal were killed? No new jobs, no new revenue for hotels, bars and restaurants in the region. What message would that send to companies about this state's attitude toward business deals, especially business arrangements cemented in state law nine years ago?

What would this state be like without Oriole Park? (Hint: Call them the Tampa Orioles.) What would this state be like without a bridge across the Chesapeake? What would the gridlock be like if there weren't a second bay bridge? What would Baltimore be like without Harborplace?

Defeating the football stadium would send the message that Maryland is indeed hostile to business, that Marylanders don't want outsiders coming into their state -- even if they bring jobs and economic activity and tax revenue.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

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