The Syracuse stadium fantasy

by E.J. McMahon |  | NY Torch

Public subsidies of sports arenas, stadiums and ballparks “cannot be justified on the grounds of local economic development, income growth or job creation, those arguments most frequently used by subsidy advocates.” That’s the solid consensus view of economists, based on decades of evidence from scores of projects, as summarized in this 2008 paper. For a more recent take on the issue, see this April 2013 reportpresented to officials in Milwaukee, Wi., where the usual suspects are pushing for a new downtown arena.

All economic analyses aside, taxpayer-funded subsidies for sports facilities are just plain unfair, chiefly benefiting wealthy owners, sponsors and boosters of the teams that play in them, while diverting scarce resources from more basic public services and infrastructure needs.

But many politicians across the country remain suckers for the “if we build it, they will come”premise behind proposed sports developments, especially in struggling cities. Until yesterday, at least, New York State’s latest local sports facility subsidy scam had been taking shape in Syracuse, where Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney reportedly had Governor Cuomo’s pledge of state support for a partially county-funded $500 million arena that would serve mainly as a new showcase for the Orange of Syracuse University.

The good news (for now) is that Mahoney says the county has “abandoned” the project because it couldn’t secure the support of Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner, who had the temerity to ask some obvious questions about the deal.  A Syracuse sportswriter had some similar questions.  Meanwhile, Miner has been more focused on the basics, seeking state help to come up with a comparatively measly $16.4 million in “emergency capital needs” that have more to do with public safety and recreation for neighborhood kids.

By the way, what’s wrong with  Carrier Dome, the 49,000-seat arena (also publicly subsidized) that has been home to the Syracuse Orange since 1980?  The fabled “loud house” certainly seems to have aged well from an average fan’s perspective. In fact, the Orange are poised to lead the NCAA in men’s basketball attendance this season.

So far, no one seems to have directly sounded out the governor’s office on this.  But support for a new Syracuse arena would not be inconsistent with Cuomo’s recent gift of up to $124 million in (bonded) state dollars to support yet another round of improvements for the Buffalo Bills’ stadium.Meanwhile, as noted here a few days ago, the governor still isn’t disclosing how he’ll pay for the new Tappan Zee Bridge, among other infrastructure projects.

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- E.J. McMahon is the Research Director at the Empire Center for Public Policy.