Local Politics: Don't call it economic development

Rob Moore
Rendering of planned Arena District stadium for Crew SC

Earlier this month, City Council and the Franklin County Commissioners voted on separate proposals to commit $50 million each — a total of $100 million — to develop the property for a new proposed Downtown Crew stadium over the next 30 years.

This was a big win for the Crew. After a tumultuous year that almost ended in the charter Major League Soccer team moving to Austin, Texas, it appears that a deal has been struck to keep the team in Columbus conditional on a new Arena District development that includes a new stadium.

While saving the Crew is a big symbolic win for the city, some local officials have also praised the new stadium as an economic development tool. Unfortunately, this flies in the face of the evidence available about the impact of stadium subsidies on local economies.

A highly respected poll of economists conducted last year found 24 major economists agreeing that stadium subsidies will cost taxpayers more than the economic benefits they generate. Only one economist dissented. This isn't quite “existence of climate change” level consensus, but it's pretty close.

But don't stadiums create jobs? Well yes, of course they do, but these jobs come from somewhere. Dollars consumers spend at a stadium are dollars they don't spend at local movie theaters, bars and concert venues. All the empirical data available tells us that consumers don't increase spending on entertainment when a new stadium is built, but rather shift their entertainment spending from other sources.

Now, economic development isn't the only reason the city and county may want to spend public dollars on a stadium development. Maybe the $100 million is worth the symbolism of having an MLS sports team. Or maybe the $100 million is worth the 180 affordable housing units planned to be built on the development.

To put it in perspective, though, what else could the city and county spend that $100 million on over the next 30 years?

With $100 million, the city and county could give 100 unemployed people $15-an-hour jobs for 30 years.

With $100 million, the city and county could put over 600 low-income children in pre-k for free every year for 30 years.

With $100 million, the city and county could lift more than 1,000 families above the poverty line with cash transfers for 30 years.

With $100 million, the city and county could pull more than 2,500 minimum-wage workers paying market rate rent over the housing burden threshold (30 percent of their income spent on housing) with housing subsidies for 30 years.

With $100 million, the city and county could pull more than 4,700 Central Ohioans out of food insecurity every year by providing SNAP-ed nutrition programs for 30 years.

Some of these strategies would have economic development benefits. Others would achieve equity goals. The question we should be asking ourselves, though, is this: Does the symbolism of a new stadium Downtown outweigh the benefits of these other uses of public dollars?