The Other Columbus: On truth, city values and soccer stadiums

A $426.8 million soccer stadium is who Columbus is. It is perhaps even what it aspires to be.

Scott Woods
Dirt from Field is being used to grow barley for Miller Lite as part of a promotional campaign.

The majority of conversations I have that are critical of Columbus end with some variation of the same observation: “Well, the city spent $50 million on a new soccer stadium we didn’t need, so whatever.” It’s a quick way to cut to the chase in a discussion about what the city cares about, though it’s frequently such a powerfully base example of class priorities that it shuts down more dialogue than it expands. It has become the “What about the starving children in Africa?” showstopper without meaning to, its intent being very different. It’s not trying to shut down an exchange of ideas; it’s just too real a truth to move past.  

For all its bluntness, it’s not a false observation. It’s not a declaration that requires a nuanced read. It may even be saving everyone involved in a critical conversation a lot of time, since no one needs to get bogged down in further implications. The only thing we should really do with that statement is clarify the price tag: The stadium cost $313.8 million (split between private fundraising, the state, a loan and bonds paid for by Franklin County), plus the conversion of the old stadium ($50 million Columbus dollars) and the development of Astor Park ($63 million more Columbus dollars). Everything associated with the new stadium actually comes up to $426.8 million (that we know of). Moving forward, consider multiplying your statistic about 8.5 times over.

Putting Field (which has to set a record for most on-the-nose name for a sports facility I have ever heard) on the table to prove a point about anything is a lot like kicking a hornet’s nest. Crew fans are a pretty defensive bunch. Say anything remotely disparaging about their new toy, and they — and their 20 Twitter followers — will come for you. At the same time, what they can never say is that you’re wrong about what the arena represents: city priorities. Of course, they would argue that dropping a new soccer stadium Downtown is proof that Columbus does in fact care about its citizens. After all, it made their dream come true in less time than it takes to install an air conditioner in a public school, so as far as they’re concerned, they won.

That’s the tone that rubs me the wrong way, for the record, the scent of “we won/you lost” that comes with their unrequested opinions. As if dunking on disenfranchised schools or a lack of real-world affordable housing is something of which to be proud. It’s never a debate about whether or not such energy could have been better spent elsewhere, or what would happen if the powers that be decided to tackle a local social issue. Crew fans know that the $50 million they raised practically overnight (measured in civic process years) could have been spent on something more meaningful. But you lost, snowflakes. Keep crying. See you at the stadium.

It feels necessary to clarify that, contrary to the intellectual collateral damage piling up here, I’m not blasting the Crew. I’m unpacking how what we know about the city should clarify its realities. A $426.8 million soccer stadium created out of thin air in a city that, according to City Hall’s own campaign speeches, has some pretty heavy stuff that needs fixing, is not a trifling thing. We’re talking stuff that $426.8 million would have gone a long way in repairing, if not solved outright. I mean, don’t you want me to shut up about this stuff? Because you can make that happen. It’s really quite simple: Drop $50 million on schools. Drop $50 million on homelessness. Drop $50 million on affordable housing or in improving the conditions of neighborhoods that are actively neglected. Drop $50 million on the arts or recreation centers or public health or transportation. If you dropped $50 million dollars on each of the 8 social conditions I just mentioned, it would still cost less than the stadium you just opened.

Argumentatively speaking, the worst thing for proponents of predatory developers and dismissive city agendas was handing critics the bone of a miraculously funded stadium. We get that the bone of being right isn’t the biggest hammer in the toolbox, but it does accomplish one very important thing: It clarifies Columbus’ priorities, which is another way of saying it clarifies Columbus’ values. And once you know what those are, you can adjust your expectations as a citizen, activist, politician or business owner. You can stop asking the city to be something it can’t or refuses to be. It’s like the Maya Angelou quote says: “When people show you who they are, believe them the first time.” 

A $426.8 million soccer stadium is who Columbus is. It is perhaps even what it aspires to be. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with a new soccer stadium, except for the part where it’s the best example of civic pride and get-’er-done work ethic we have in recent memory. You can’t say that Columbus cares about police reform or education or housing the way you can say it cares about new soccer stadiums. That probably feels reductive to some of you. I assure you that if you’re someone suffering daily through the issues I mentioned (and a host of issues I did not), it’s more reductive to continually erase their lives from the conversation of what a city cares about. It isn’t a reductive observation. It is the power of a simple truth told plainly. And if that makes you feel bad or attacked, that’s not the truth’s fault.   

P.S. For those of you keeping track, this is the third installment in my series of articles interrogating the idea of creating a caring city.

More:Part 1: The Other Columbus: Can a city care?

More:Part 2: The Other Columbus: Cities aren’t designed to care