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Opinion - Feeding frenzy

The Falcons and political insiders are hungry for a new stadium - and you're the bait

The South has always had a peculiar attitude toward "freedom," dating back to the doo-dah, doo-dah days. People who had social status had more "freedom." Not much has changed, especially in Atlanta where the elites — personified by mayors, magnates, and multimillionaires — have the freedom to do what they want, while you and I have the freedom to pay the bills.

Case in point: The Atlanta Falcons want a $1 billion stadium. The team already has a stadium, of course, and it's just dandy. Except for one thing, new stadiums balloon owners' net worth. Team moguls periodically whine that new stadiums are "necessary" — for them, not us. In Atlanta, Mayor Kasim Reed has joined the Falcon chorus, proclaiming that a new stadium is just absolutely, positively needed — without exactly explaining why it's a priority.

The threat is that if a stadium isn't built, and if it doesn't include tons of "public" money (aka your dollars), then the team will scoot to greener fields in another city. Notably, the Georgia Dome was supposed to last for many more decades, and the proposed new stadium's state funding extends until 2050. It's likely state and city officials will cave in — as they have now — to another stadium long before 2050.

If Atlanta's new stadium is built, it will be grand. The NFL likes stadiums to be swanker, with more luxury seats, and the whole purpose is to jack up revenues so that owners' bank accounts will soar to heavenly levels. Fewer Atlantans will actually be able to attend games for a reasonable price, and a middle-class family of four will ponder a second mortgage to afford the $500 or more it will cost for a day at the game.

That would probably be OK, except that the public always pays a hefty percentage of the tab for the stadium. Remember Republicans — you know, those swell guys who hate taxes — well, they rushed right in two years ago to extend a 7 percent sales tax on Fulton County hotels. That will provide about $300 million in borrowed money toward the stadium. The principal plus interest will cost undoubtedly more than $1 billion over the next 35 years. You can argue that the "bed tax" is money tourist chumps pay. Maybe so, but that money could also be used for roads, transit, schools, Grady Memorial Hospital, or a hundred other critical but unfunded or underfunded priorities in Atlanta.

Plebeian Atlantans almost certainly will have much more freedom to contribute to the Falcons' Xanadu-scale pleasure dome beyond the $300 million hotel tax. It's worth noting that Arthur Blank truly is a good guy, a consummate philanthropist, and among sports team owners he's one of the few who shouldn't be straightjacketed at an institution for the terminally sociopathic. But there isn't any way the Falcons are going dig into their own pockets for all of the remaining $700 million. Or even much of it.

Nor is there any way the public will understand the finances. The NFL has a well-oiled obfuscation scheme for stadiums: The team will appear to pay part of the stadium cost, but most of what it allegedly pays will be returned to it in complex calculations involving, often, money that should be designated to the "public partners." What goes out of the owner's right pocket is returned to his left.

Will there be a public benefit for the stadium, since we're anteing much of the moolah for the team? Hahahahahahahaha. Ha! There are innumerable highly documented studies on the economic impact of stadia. The impact is great for teams, lousy for you and me.

The only studies that support stadiums are those commissioned by teams, leagues, and Chambers of Commerce. They inevitably use the "multiplier" scam — i.e., for every dollar spent on the stadium, some multiple such as two or three is added to the local economy. Serious economists scoff at the multiplier. "It never happens," says University of South Florida professor Phil Porter. On the general impact of stadium, the University of Maryland's Dennis Coates and Brad Humphreys, top scholars on the subject, conclude: "Attracting a professional sports franchise to a city and building that franchise a new stadium or arena will have no effect on the growth rate of real per capita income and may actually reduce the level of real per capita income in that city."

There are two possible options for Blank, who isn't the sort to be soiled by a closed-door feeding frenzy of insiders:

• Insist on a public debate and a referendum so that the public can know what it's buying.

• Make Atlanta full partners with the Falcons in the deal, and demand money be paid directly to worthy priorities.

Any deal that isn't transparent and doesn't contain a real payback for citizens is likely to be sacked for a loss by citizens angry are special deals for rich fellas.



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