If You Build It, They Will Still Leave

After months of wrangling, City Council and the Street Administration have finally agreed on a blueprint to put deals in place for taxpayer-funded stadiums for the Phillies and Eagles. While they claim that taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars are needed for these projects for prestige and economic development, these assertions are either horribly naïve or dangerously duplicitous.

On one point, everyone involved in the stadium debates agree: Philadelphia has problems and needs to attract more residents. Census Bureau figures show that Philadelphia lost 11 percent of its population in the 1990s – and other data show that the majority of those who are departing are between the ages of 25 and 39. In other words, families in the prime of their lives who have (or are about to have) children are putting Philly in the rear-view mirror. And they’re not leaving because Veterans Stadium needs a facelift.

People leave because they want a better quality of life for themselves and their children. When the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority (PICA) studied why people leave, it found that a central reason is the poor quality of Philadelphia’s public schools, combined with high taxes, expensive public services and the threat of violent crime. It’s not hard to empathize with young families who make a move to the suburbs.

That’s why the joint efforts of the city and state governments to turn a firehose full of taxpayer cash into new stadiums is so wrong-headed. For all of Philadelphia’s problems, a lack of cultural, sports and other recreational opportunities is not among them, and this bounty provides insufficient incentive for families to live in the city. An overwhelming body of research exists demonstrating that stadiums, regardless of where they are located, have a very limited impact on their communities or the families who live in them.

In contrast, taxpayer-funded stadiums do serve mainly to enrich team owners and players through “sweetheart” leases that guarantee them virtually all of the income a stadium generates. Plus, the tax dollars that are pumped into new stadiums can’t be used for other services that have a direct benefit to residents, or, even better, can’t be returned to private citizens, through tax cuts, to invest and produce greater returns.

Many boosters of a center city home for the Phillies often cite Baltimore as a shining example of how new facilities can revitalize downtown areas. But the economic facts paint an entirely different picture. Despite the addition of two new taxpayer-funded stadiums to its popular Inner Harbor tourist destination, Baltimore has lost 250,000 residents since 1960, putting the population at its lowest level since 1915. And the city continues to lose population at the rate of 1,000 residents per month.

Jobs are a problem, too. According to an April 1998 report by Greater Philadelphia First and the Pennsylvania Economy League, between 1991 and 1996, Baltimore ranked 44th among the country’s top 50 metro regions in employment growth – one spot below Philadelphia.

All this is not to say that the Phillies and the Eagles don’t need new stadiums. As private businesses, professional sports teams are the primary authority for what capital investments they should make to succeed. But private businesses they are, and, as such, shouldn’t have their hands out to working families in order to subsidize their corporate decisions. Some teams have kept this in mind.

In San Francisco – not exactly a bastion of the capitalist right wing – the Giants will soon move into the first privately funded, Major League, baseball-only stadium built since the 1960s. The $262 million Pacific Bell Park was funded through the sale of facility naming rights, permanent seat licenses, advertising and concessions rights, and bank loans. In the NFL, the Miami Dolphins, Carolina Panthers and Washington Redskins all play in privately financed stadiums.

The mission for Philadelphia’s leaders is to grow the city’s economy and make it not only an attractive destination for tourists, but a magnet for families to move in and put down roots. Accomplishing that goal means tackling the tough task of fixing the real problems that are causing residents to leave and making the suburbs wrestle with growing pains. It’s far easier to throw cash at wealthy team owners than to create quality public schools, safe streets, affordable taxes and efficient public services. But unless city leaders achieve these essential priorities, shiny new stadiums will not stand in Philadelphia’s path of further decline.

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Grant R. Gulibon is senior policy analyst at the Commonwealth Foundation, an independent, non-profit public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg, Pa.