Let me get this straight. Some activists in Arlington don’t want the city to chip in for a new Texas Rangers stadium. These folks want residents to vote “no” next month to giving the team $500 million in public funds for a new park with a retractable roof (and, it’s fair to assume, a big air conditioner).
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the people protesting this stadium deal are insane.
I don’t say that because I think the deal is a good one for Arlington and they’re nuts to decry it (although they are wrong on a couple points). I say that because they’re wasting their time. Short of a Mid Cities-centered black swan event, the sort of cataclysmic occurrence that would make a stadium financing deal the least of our dying world’s problems, Arlington voters will easily approve the measure to pay for half of the new Rangers stadium.
Why? They live in Arlington, which means they know they have no choice. That’s why they approved $135 million of taxpayer contributions for the venue formerly known as the Ballpark in Arlington more than two decades ago. That’s why they voted to give billionaire Jerry Jones $325 million for that 73-acre glass-and-steel boil known as AT&T Stadium. Without those stadiums, Arlington is just a good commuter university surrounded by used-car lots and highway-fueled strip malls. Arlingtonians are going to pay whatever it takes to keep the Rangers, because professional sports are all the city has keeping it from being Mesquite with better neighbors.
Do you really think Dallas wouldn’t have jumped to sign a deal even worse than the one Arlington is going to vote yes on?
That hasn’t stopped the naysayers from making their case against the stadium deal. By “making their case,” I mean distributing pink sheets of paper filled with all-caps subheads, two spaces after periods, and third-grade-level arguments. Space limitations and the editors’ reluctance to allow me uninterrupted joy prevent my mocking the entire pamphlet, but let’s hit my favorite quotes:
Who are we Arlington taxpayers? Are we just dummies who finance the games of millionaires and billionaires?
The Rangers are threatening to go to Frisco. I say, “Go, and do not let the door hit you in your ‘donkey’ as you leave.”
The punctuation was even more imaginative, but you get the point. The vote-no people think they’ve paid enough already for a perfectly acceptable stadium financed 25 years ago; that the folks who come to Arlington for games don’t spend money in the city outside of stadium and parking costs; that the Rangers owners are billionaires, so screw them; and that the city was bidding against itself, because no one would have been so stupid as to give half a billion in public money for this thing except Frisco, because Frisco is the only place dumb enough to vote for huge sports things and not for school funding. Let’s analyze these concerns one by one:
We already financed a stadium! You did. In 1991, you approved a half-cent sales tax to pay $135 million of the $190 million or so needed to build and open the Ballpark in Arlington by 1994. Recall that Dallas was drawing up plans to build a near-downtown stadium to capture the Rangers, so city leaders moved quickly to secure the deal and had no trouble selling residents on the idea of covering 70 percent of the costs. Arlington voters said yes partly because they were promised that the stadium would spark development around the property, something that only crazy people believed. All one had to do was see the enormous parking lot where the ballpark was being built to realize there was nothing connecting the edifice to developable areas where real humans would want to live, work, shop, or play.
But now that’s not a problem, because a new development is already done and dusted. The Rangers and the city of Arlington announced the exclamation-pointed project Texas Live!, a mixed-use design adjacent to where the new park will be built. Texas Live! will house a hotel, a convention center annex, and an entertainment complex. Granted, it doesn’t sound heartening when the Dallas Morning News sums up the project’s benefits by saying that it “is much smaller than earlier failed developments planned for the parking lots surrounding the Rangers ballpark.” The point is, you decided a long time ago that you want the responsibilities that go with playing host to professional sports teams, and one of those responsibilities is that you may have to wait about three decades to see the development benefits promised you.
The ballpark doesn’t help greater Arlington. Now, if your argument is that you don’t get any serious monetary benefit beyond the confines of the enormous parking lot surrounding the ballpark (and the Cowboys’ stadium), absolutely, you’re right. Among the 10 biggest cities in North Texas, Arlington’s sales growth since 2002 has only topped Mesquite. That’s despite the big bump the city got when the Rangers twice played in the World Series and the Cowboys moved their stadium to town in 2009. Even Denton—Denton!—beat Arlington in terms of sales growth in that time.
But this is hardly a revelation. The supposed economic benefit of pro sports stadiums has been debunked over and over again in studies for decades. It’s not a smart-money buy. It’s a vanity buy. In other words …
We’re financing rich toys for billionaires. Exactly. Thank you. Isn’t that obvious? These people didn’t become billionaires by sinking money into high-profile projects that never pay off. But they plan to stay rich by offering you the chance to sink your money into high-profile projects that will never pay off—at least monetarily. Did you see the Miami Marlins’ ballpark deal? Taxpayers footed $515 million of the park’s $639 million total. And that’s in Miami, a great American city with beaches and beautiful people and skyrocketing real estate growth. It doesn’t need a baseball team to make it relevant in any way, and it still got hosed.
The Rangers’ owners know that they could get a great deal from the city’s taxpayers—you guys pay half, okay?—for two reasons. One, as stated, it’s Arlington. You have to keep us. Two, you’ve got to pay a premium so we don’t shop this deal around. Which brings us to the final argument:
Arlington was bidding against itself. This is the most ridiculous claim of them all. Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings is on record saying that he supported Dallas’ efforts to try to win the Rangers should there be an opportunity, but it goes much deeper than that. One source tells me that Rawlings, from the moment he won his first mayoral race, was deeply enamored with the idea of being known as “the man who brought the Rangers to Dallas.” Two other sources that worked with the mayor during these backroom discussions say that might be going too far—but that Rawlings was definitely committed to doing whatever it took to make the other bigwigs in the room happy. This included people like Ray Hunt’s right-hand man, John Scovell, as well as various big shots from the Dallas Morning News, people who are under the continuing delusion that adding big projects is the way to spur growth in the city center, thereby adding value to their real estate holdings.
Nevertheless, the interest from Dallas was long-standing and real. And do you really think we wouldn’t have jumped to sign a deal even worse than the one Arlington is going to vote yes on? Have you seen our Fair Park management contract? Have you been following our decades-long efforts to throw money away on a toll road through a floodplain? Have you read about our terrible-for-taxpayers convention center arrangement? If we had gotten wind that the deal was nearing completion with Arlington, there’s no telling how much we would have driven up the price of big-stadium poker.
As well, according to a well-placed source, “Frisco wasn’t even the lead suburb outside of Arlington. There was another suburb that already had let us know they would have made an unbelievable bid.”
So cheer up, Arlington. In the final analysis: a) you asked for the pains of being a pro team’s landlord; b) no, you won’t get rich doing so; but c) you’re helping rich people, so that’s nice; and d) if you didn’t do these things, other cities would have stolen the team. And then where would you be? You’d be in Arlington, without the Texas Rangers. That sounds awful.