Arguing worth of Ravens stadium Cost efficiency debated by economists, public

September 06, 1998|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

Nearly 70,000 people will converge today on a place many of them rarely visit: downtown Baltimore.

They will arrive in cars, trains, buses and airplanes. They will peel off $10 and $20 bills for everything from parking to programs and peanuts. They will hoist beers at local pubs, roast greasy bratwursts on grills, and cheer as the Ravens kick off in their new, brick stadium against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Then they will stream out, to homes as close as Canton and as far off as California. Left behind will be a $500 million question for taxpayers: Was it worth it?

Today's ceremonial opening of the $223 million Ravens stadium, six years after the debut of Oriole Park, completes one of the most ambitious public works projects in state history and pushes the bill for both ballparks to more than half a billion dollars. The complex of side-by-side stadiums has become the envy of cities around the world. It has also drawn bitter criticism.

In study after study, independent economists cast serious doubt on claims that taxpayer-financed stadiums can generate for community thousands of new jobs or hundreds of millions of dollars.

Yet city after city has followed Baltimore's example, luring sports teams downtown with lucrative coliseums. Critics say that amounts to "corporate welfare." Supporters say the investment has as much to do with hope as economics.

Specifically, advocates say:

Attracting four million visits to the downtown each year keeps the central city in the minds of suburban fans, an awareness that narrows the cultural and political rift between them and city dwellers.

By rejoining the National Football League and retaining the Orioles, Baltimore maintains the prestige of being a "big league" city. It has also averted the public relations disaster that would have followed the loss of the baseball team after the Colts moved to Indianapolis in 1984 and the National Basketball Association Bullets departed for Landover in 1972.

Having a pair of fan-friendly parks enhances community pride and, through the revenue they produce for team owners, the quality of play of the teams.

And they are fun.

"The return of putting sports back into cities really touches on what urban living should be," said Patrick Sutton, a Baltimore architect who moved to Federal Hill in 1986 and is raising two children there.

He and his wife are turned off by the compartmentalization of suburban life, where living, working and playing tend to be conducted in strictly demarcated areas.

Living in Federal Hill and working in Mount Vernon puts home, work, shopping and trips to the ballpark within walking distance. This keeps him in touch with friends, neighbors and merchants.

Costly and controversial

Moving sports downtown re-establishes the urban core as the hub of local culture, a role it played before the post-World War II migration to the suburbs.

Of course, Camden Yards was just one of several high-profile downtown projects built in recent decades. The Inner Harbor, World Trade Center, Maryland Science Center and National Aquarium have all opened.

But the ballparks have been the most controversial. And costly. Buying the land and relocating two dozen businesses at the site cost nearly $100 million. Oriole Park construction was $106.5 million, Ravens stadium, $223 million. Assorted road and rail work, and construction of a pair of light rail stations cost $73.1 million. The Orioles contributed $9 million and the Ravens, the equivalent of $12 million.

Funding for the two stadiums was passed by the state legislature in 1986, at the urging of then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer. The vote, and similar projects approved in other cities in the years that followed, set off a fierce debate about the economic justifications used by supporters to win public funding.

Although political leaders and team owners continue to claim riches for cities that spend on sports, independent economists argue otherwise.

"Is there an economic gain to these projects? The answer is 'Hell no,' " said Bruce Hamilton, an economist at the Johns Hopkins University who co-wrote a chapter on Camden Yards for "Sports, Jobs & Taxes," a book published last year by the Brookings Institution that makes the case that stadiums do not generate significant economic development.

People have only so much money to spend on recreation, and what doesn't get spent at a game would likely be spent at a movie theater or the like, critics contend. The teams themselves employ only 100 to 150 people full time -- including about 50 players -- and the earnings of part-time vendors and other service providers have little impact on the region's multi-billion-dollar economy.

Even the public money spent to build a stadium would go for roads and other projects, negating the impact of the construction, Hamilton said.

For some urban thinkers, that doesn't matter.

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