Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Stuck paying for bad decisions of old


No one gains if the Bluefish fold. Bridgeport doesn't need another high-profile failure, and the Ballpark at Harbor Yard is, no matter its history, a nice place to see a game.

But the bigger question is this: What is Bridgeport doing with a baseball team? As the team struggles at the gate and faces questions about its future, that's the real issue. No one wants to lose the team, because its benefit to the reputation and development of Connecticut's largest city, though limited, is legitimate. It has never been easy to lure people off I-95 from the suburbs to explore around here, and the team has helped change that.

And though there's been some success here recently -- new residents in the Citytrust building, a host of restaurant openings -- the failures loom large. Steel Point is what it's always been -- empty, with little hope for a rebirth. Luxury condo towers planned down Main Street have been drastically scaled back. And the Magic Johnson-backed entertainment complex slated for the lot across from Harbor Yard vanished in a puff of smoke.

Another highly public failure here would be, maybe not disastrous, but certainly disheartening. In a part of town beset with decay and missed opportunities, no one wants to see the Ballpark, Bridgeport's best new attraction of the last few decades, sit vacant.

We're paying for the original mistake, and that was bringing the team here in the first place. There's no good way out of it now.

The story that marked their arrival is one of the largest misbegotten notions in urban America -- the idea that a stadium and its home games will spur an economic revival and raise a city's fortunes. For every success story, there are 20 failures. But people keep trying it, and they keep succeeding.

Sometimes it takes the form of blackmail -- build us a stadium or we bolt. This is how professional teams across the country with perfectly adequate facilities find a way for their hometowns to shell out tax money for fancy new buildings. There was nothing wrong with Shea Stadium; the Mets just wanted a nicer park with more luxury suites, and therefore more revenue.

One report last year said the city and state of New York invested as much as $850 million in cash and tax breaks in the new Yankee Stadium. (Making matters worse, the team grabbed more than 20 acres of contiguous parkland for the new building, promising to replace it with an equal amount once the old stadium is knocked down. But it will be on separate lots -- some across highways and even atop a parking garage).

If anything should put lie to the notion that stadiums bring neighborhood booms, it's the story of the Yankees. This isn't just any team, it's the most successful major professional franchise in U.S. history. And the Bronx neighborhood where it sits isn't just downtrodden, it was for years shorthand for the worst kind of urban blight. The area has improved, but that's followed an overall uptick across the city, not from anything the stadium has done.

At its worst, this system is akin to taking money away from the public and putting it directly into the hands of some of the richest people in America. For misguided notions of civic pride, it keeps happening.

Economist and professor Andrew Zimbalist of Smith College has done as much research as anyone in the country on the effect of sports teams and stadiums on their cities. He's succinct in his conclusions, telling The New York Times recently: "All of the independent, scholarly research on the issue of whether sports teams and facilities have a positive economic impact has come to the same conclusion: One should not anticipate that a team or a facility by itself will either increase employment or raise per-capita income in a metropolitan area."

When people talk about what a project will do for a city, isn't that what we're looking for? More jobs, better pay? City morale and good feelings are nice, but if they don't correlate with improved quality of life, there's not much point. And spending public money on sports facilities doesn't reach that standard.

That doesn't mean they're worthless. But comparing the amount of public cash in this country used on sports arenas with their economic impact, it's clear there are better ways to spend that money.

Bridgeport, then, is stuck. The Bluefish have for years had trouble paying the rent, and the Atlantic League owner had to step in last year to save the team from possibly going under. Their long-term viability is highly questionable, and their overall value only slightly less so.

We don't want to lose them. But they shouldn't have been asked here to begin with.

Hugh S. Bailey is assistant editorial page editor at the Connecticut Post. He can be reached at 330-6233 or at hbailey@ctpost.com.

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