As money trickles up, school libraries suffer

December 19, 2004|By Dan Rodricks

I GOT a call the other day from some moms in Baltimore County who are looking for a little publicity for an auction in January. They are trying to raise $25,000 for renovations to the library at Franklin Elementary School in Reisterstown. That's a public school. You'd think there would be public money around for fixing up a library in a public school, but apparently there's not - or at least not enough - so next month the Franklin parents are going to auction off, among other things, a pair of signed boxing gloves from former heavyweight champ Larry Holmes and a football signed by former Chicago Bears linebacker and Ravens assistant coach Mike Singletary.

Hey, at least it's not a bake sale.

Just down the road from Reisterstown is Owings Mills, and that's where the Ravens have their new corporate campus and training complex. The 32 acres on which the $31 million complex is built had been acquired a few years ago by Baltimore County with public funds - through Program Open Space.

The land might have been used as a municipal golf course. It might have been simply left alone, a sanctuary from all the development in the area.

But the Baltimore County Council agreed to lease the land to the Ravens, giving up parkland for a corporate campus for a profitable private company.

Now the Ravens have an indoor field, three outdoor fields, reportedly the largest weight room in the National Football League, two racquetball courts, a basketball court, a putting green and a players' lounge with plasma televisions and a pool table with purple felt.

Sh'weeeeeet.

Just down the road from Owings Mills is Baltimore and the $200-plus million stadium we built for the Ravens, and that's just a couple of Matt Stover kicks from the $200-plus million stadium we built for the Orioles. We spent millions more to acquire and clear the land on which the stadiums were built.

And the stadiums were built just a long fly ball from where the city of Baltimore now wants to build - with upward of $290 million in public financing - a new convention headquarters hotel. (It has to be publicly financed, we're told, because the private sector - "the capital markets" - apparently won't do it, and because the last convention headquarters hotel built in Baltimore, with $45 million in public subsidy, is a mile away from the taxpayer-financed convention center it was supposed to serve. )

My sweet Lord, have we been a generous people when it comes to private enterprise. There has been a shift in welfare in this country, in case you missed it. Money doesn't trickle down. It trickles up.

We built both the Ravens and the Orioles new venues for revenue. We gave them favorable leases. We let the Ravens sell the name of the stadium (and the Orioles retain that right). We let the Ravens sell personal seat licenses.

In 2002, at the time the Baltimore County Council agreed to give the Ravens public space, the franchise was the fifth-most valuable in the National Football League, according to Forbes magazine. (Last year, it struggled at eighth on the list, with Forbes placing the team's value at a mere $649 million.)

Look, I'm citing history here. I'm not knocking welfare for the sports franchises. I don't do that anymore.

I lost that argument a long time ago.

And no one wants to hear the library thing - that our priorities are upside down because we subsidize millionaires and their enterprises when so many human services go begging for more support. (Example: When Baltimore opened an intensive residential treatment center for addicts in Park Heights in 2002, it was the first such place to open in this drug-infested city in 30 years.)

In this state, we've bent over backward to provide venues for revenues for professional sports franchises - under the assumption that, if we didn't, no one else would, and these franchises would go elsewhere. (The Washington football team with the repulsive name is one of only three that play in a privately financed stadium, but Maryland aided and abetted its evacuation from RFK Stadium to the suburbs - was that smart growth? - with $70 million in taxpayer money for roads and infrastructure).

This is why it was with a mixture of surprise and amusement that I reacted to news that a public official in the District of Columbia had the audacity to demand that the city obtain at least 50 percent private funding to build the 41,000-seat baseball stadium for the Washington Nationals.

Imagine that. Imagine a municipality and a private group of bankers and developers and millionaires actually sharing the cost of a big, new venue for revenue.

Until D.C. Council Chairwoman Linda Cropp got this deal-breaking amendment passed, the mayor of Washington, Anthony Williams, had been flying along with his plan to have the city fully fund the new stadium - at an estimated cost of $279 million, plus land acquisition and infrastructure costs.

Councilwoman Cropp has been hammered for doing this, for jeopardizing the deal with Major League Baseball to bring a franchise back to the nation's capital.

I say more power to her. Her amendment might save the District $140 million. You could probably fix up a lot of schools and libraries with that kind of money. (Sorry, sports fans. Didn't mean to bring that up again, and on Sunday, no less.)

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