On its face, the deal was absurd, so absurd that it drew the mockery of no less than late-night sage Stephen Colbert: A city with so many very pressing needs giving a billionaire more than $43 million to install new scoreboards and soup up the stadium his lackluster football team calls home, all in the name of putting more butts in seats (and more money in his wallet).
The reality is more nuanced, of course, but that’s essentially the deal Mayor Alvin Brown and the Jacksonville City Council agreed to last year. The city ponied up two-thirds of the money Jaguars owner Shad Khan — a man who owns a 61st-floor penthouse in Chicago — wanted for upgrades to EverBank Field to boost lagging attendance. (In 2013, the 4-12 Jags averaged 59,940 fans per home game, 28th out of the NFL’s 32 teams. Call us naïve, but we think attendance and the team’s record are more interrelated than attendance and the lack of ginormous scoreboards.)
And so, with much pomp and circumstance and a soccer match and a Carrie Underwood concert, Khan unveiled these enhancements on Saturday evening to some 52,000 spectators — spectators, it’s worth noting, who paid good money to see the upgrades tax dollars had purchased — part of what Khan called a tribute to Jacksonville: the two gorgeous super-hi-def video boards, the largest in the world (as the several billboards around town informed us), that adorn both ends of the field; a section of these video boards will show other football games via NFL RedZone while the Jags play. There’s also what the team’s website refers to as “New Seating Products,” including two pools and 16 cabanas, places for the well-heeled to luxuriate during games (end zone cabana packages run between $175 and $250 per person).
This is in some respects a variation on a story we’ve seen play out in so many cities in Florida and across the country: sports team owners, 1 percenters all, prodding taxpayers to help build or enhance game facilities for them. These proposals are usually pitched to the public as a form of economic development or a fulcrum of community pride — making cities “world-class,” taking them to the “next level.” And these pitches are almost always successful, because there’s almost always an implicit (or sometimes explicit) threat that if the city doesn’t do what the sports team wants, the sports team may depart for greener and more acquiescent pastures.
In 2012, for instance, Miami taxpayers spent $639 million to construct a new stadium for the Marlins, a deal widely regarded as one of the largest boondoggles in sports history. In 2010, Orlando paid $480 million toward an arena for the Magic (and last year, committed another $70 million to a stadium for the Orlando City Soccer Club, which will begin play in the MLS in 2015). Just last week, the Detroit Red Wings unveiled plans for a new $650 million hockey arena, most of which will be borne by the residents of that bankrupt city.
This happens despite the fact that the economics literature is clear and unequivocal: Subsidizing stadiums doesn’t boost communities’ economies in any tangible way. In the words of economists Roger Noll and Andrew Zimbalist, authors of Sports, Jobs, and Taxes: The Economic Impact of Sports Teams and Stadiums: “A new sports facility has an extremely small (perhaps even negative) effect on overall economic activity and employment."
According to economists Dennis Coates and Brad R. Humphreys, in a 2000 journal article: “Despite the beliefs of local officials and their hired consultants about the economic benefits of publicly subsidized stadium construction, the consensus of academic economists has been that such policies do not raise incomes.”
And so on.
The EverBank upgrades are something of a different animal — a much smaller animal, for starters. In 2007, a Jaguars-commissioned study determined that EverBank needed $148 million in work. (This, just two years after the city spent $24 million for improvements ahead of the 2005 Super Bowl.) The scoreboard package costs less than half of that, and much less than the half-billion or more a brand-new stadium would require. And there’s an argument to be made that having a really nice stadium and a professional football team keeps Jacksonville on the national and international stage, and gives the community a sense of pride and place — intangible, rather than tangible, benefits.
But the underlying criticism is the same: Tax dollars helping a rich man get richer.
The city would counter that, as Brown pointed out last year, “the revenue is already going to maintain the stadium. Now, it will be invested in some of the most significant enhancements in the history of EverBank Field.”
He’s not wrong: The $43 million came from bonds taken out against the city’s tourism tax, the 6 percent surcharge tourists pay on hotel stays, which netted a little more than $16 million in 2013. (Statewide, counties collect more than $650 million in tourism taxes each year, more than a quarter of which comes from Orange County alone; Duval is but a bit player in the state’s tourism economy.) Of that amount, a third is set aside to promote tourism, another third is used to pay off the debt the city incurred to build what is now EverBank Field, and the final third is used for upkeep and maintenance at the football stadium, the Baseball Grounds and Veterans Memorial Arena.
Thanks to forces well beyond Alvin Brown’s control — namely, Disney and other powerful tourism interests that pump millions of dollars into state legislators’ coffers each election cycle — that $16 million can’t be spent on, say, hiring new teachers or cops, or improving mass transit or cleaning up the St. Johns River. The tourism tax was created at the behest of the industry to promote tourism — and later expanded to sports facilities, under the theory that they promote tourism. The industry is very determined to keep that Pandora’s box very tightly sealed, and to date, Tallahassee has been more than happy to oblige.
So even if you think the scoreboards are a waste of taxpayer money, you can’t really fault the mayor; he’s playing the hand he was dealt. And, in fairness, the scoreboards are pretty cool.
But let’s exercise our imaginations for a minute: What if those constraints didn’t exist? What if those bed taxes, just like the property and sales taxes you pay, weren’t horded by hoteliers and tourism honchos? What if they could be spent on whatever we wanted or needed?
What could $43 million buy?
We have a few ideas — things we think would make Jacksonville a better place to live and work and raise a family, things that would bolster our environment and improve transportation and make our streets a little bit safer. (And a few things we threw in because we thought they’d be fun.)
This is a sports town. We get that. But the fact is, while the scoreboards will give Jaguars home games a commercial slickness, they won’t do much to improve the city’s overall quality of life. Maybe, in the afterglow of Khan’s celebration, it’s worth thinking about what could have been.