There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch (Or Ballpark)

Editorial written by James Baughn on Wednesday, November 28, 2001

from the strikeout dept.

When somebody says that a proposed project will create 7,000 new jobs, bring in $1.4 billion in new economic activity, and won't cost taxpayers a dime, it's time to be skeptical. Very skeptical.

In recent letters to the Southeast Missourian and News Tribune, supporters of a new Cardinals ballpark suggest that taxpayers can get something for nothing out of the deal.

Sorry, but it doesn't work like that.

Let's take a look at the "benefits" of the proposed Cardinals deal one by one:

  • According to one letter to the editor, "...the Cardinals are carrying most of the financial freight themselves. The team is putting up two-thirds of the construction cost and is committed to covering any cost over-runs."

    If the amount that the state will pay is so small, why can't the Cardinals owners pay for it themselves? Why should the state be involved at all in the matter?

  • Another letter states, "The cost to the taxpayer would be zero. The costs not funded directly by the ballclub would be covered by taxes generated by the park and its adjoining Ballpark Village commercial center."

    Bzzt... WRONG! The cost to taxpayers is exactly equal to whatever amount the Cardinals organization doesn't want to pony up themselves. It's just that simple. Whether the money comes before or after construction is irrelevant.

  • Proponents say, "St. Louis needs a new ballpark"

    If it ain't broke, don't fix it. In recent years, the Cardinals attendance rates have shattered team records. In 1998-99, Mark McGwire brought in the crowds even though the team sucked. Then McGwire cooled off but the team no longer sucked, and the fans kept coming. Next season, even with McGwire retired, the team -- and the attendance rate -- should remain strong. The "old" stadium has not prevented the Cardinals from remaining competitive with teams that have shiny-new stadiums built with state handouts (such as the Pittsburgh Pirates, who had a terrible season despite their brand-new PNC Park).

    Busch Stadium doesn't fit the latest fad of building "cozy" stadiums with open views of city skylines or ocean harbors. But that doesn't make it "ugly". In my opinion, the artist's rendering of the new stadium isn't that much of an improvement over the current one. We're spending millions of dollars to demolish one stadium and replace it with a smaller stadium that is only slightly more attractive?

  • One of the letter writers argues, "...[T]he ballpark and surrounding Ballpark Village neighborhood would generate 7,000 new jobs and $1.4 billion in new economic activity. The new and better jobs created by this economic growth should be a much needed shot-in-the-arm for the state economy..."

    How exactly does a downtown revitalization project in St. Louis provide a shot-in-the-arm to Missouri as a whole? I suppose those 7,000 new jobs could be filled by the state workers who might be laid off from their jobs because of Missouri's budget crisis.

    If the project is such a good deal for St. Louis, why isn't the city picking up the entire tab? Indeed, if a "Ballpark Village" is such a wonderful endeavor, why hasn't the city embarked on such a revitalization project next to the "old" Busch Stadium a long time ago?

  • Supporters argue that this deal guarantees that the team will stay in St. Louis.

    Last year, the Cardinals management made idle threats above moving across the river into Illinois.

    I say, more power to 'em! Let's make Illinois and East St. Louis foot the bill while Missouri continues to receive the residual benefits. The stadium would reside in Illinois, but fans would spend most of their time in St. Louis. Would you leave your car unattended in a parking lot in East St. Louis? Many people would continue to park in downtown and take mass transit across the river. Likewise, people would continue to shop, eat, gamble, sight-see, and otherwise open their wallets in Missouri. The "East St. Louis Cardinals" could actually be a blessing in disguise.

    Meanwhile, fears that the team would move to a completely different region are unfounded. The Cardinals already have a loyal fan base in St. Louis. Such a large group of fans would take years to build in another city. The owners of the team aren't stupid; they aren't going to squander a good thing just get back at the Missouri legislature.

    However, the people of Missouri aren't stupid either. We need to be skeptical of any plan that promises us billions of dollars in economic growth for free. This is the Show-Me State; the Cardinals organization needs to show us a better, more realistic plan -- preferably one that doesn't involve state money.