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Monday, March 18, 2019

Some Thoughts about Wichita and Baseball

For those who care, some thoughts about the controversy over the proposed baseball stadium (with its attached riverfront development package) here in Wichita. I can't make it to the special city council meeting being held on Tuesday evening to discuss the stadium and related matters, but perhaps some of these thoughts may be of interest to those who are able to attend. For whatever its worth...

1) I really want to see the new baseball stadium built at the corner of Maple and McLean Boulevard.
    1a) Of course, one of the primary reasons I really want to see the new baseball stadium built there is that Lawrence-Dumont Stadium is gone, and we presently have a big empty space at the corner of Maple and McLean, where a baseball stadium had previously stood for over 80 years.
    1b) And yes, like no doubt many others, I do find it very hard to believe that Mayor Jeff Longwell and other major city players, being anything but stupid, didn't count on the facts on the ground--despite Vice Mayor Jeff Blubaugh protest that it wasn't the case that "this is something that [we] just rushed through"--to help propel their plan for the new stadium forward. Build it (or rather, knock it down) and they will come, indeed.

2) I don't have any particular complaints with how the city plans on paying for the new baseball stadium.
    2a) Note that I said "particular complaints," not "fundamental complaints." Fundamentally speaking, it is, in my judgment, rather bizarre to run a major city construction project by way of (as the excellent reporting of Chance Swain in The Wichita Eagle has laid out for us):
        --the state issuing STAR and the city issuing general obligation bonds...
        --whose purchase by banks, investors, or other financial bodies is based on the expectation of repayment...
        --such repayment being dependent upon increased sales and property tax receipts...
        --those increased receipts being in theory encouraged by the imposition of Tax Increment Financing and Community Improvement Districts (known as TIFs and CIDs) in the as-yet undetermined area around the future stadium, which legally enable the collection of higher sales and property taxes by the city...
        --those higher tax rates themselves being dependent upon new property development and commercial traffic within those districts associated with the construction project in question...
        --meaning that subsidies need to be provided to encourage developers to put up the money for building those venues which will generate the aforementioned traffic...
        --all of which--how convenient!--turns out to be very appealing to a certain AAA baseball team owner that was looking to get more involved in real estate and commercial development, and wouldn't come to Wichita without such a promise.
    2b) Having laid out all that, note that there are very good reasons--economic, legal, and political reasons--why American cities (particularly slow-(or-no-)growth mid-sized American cities like Wichita) find this kind of debt-driven, development-dependent, subsidy-focused, "growth machine" financing pretty much unavoidable. Exploring alternative responses to those fundamental economic, legal, and political conditions is, I think, necessary, and consequently something of an obsession of mine. But unlike some critics, I don't think that, simply because one might reject the legitimacy of any or all of the above particulars, the appropriate response needs to be a fundamental rejection of all development. I don't think austerity-mindedness is any kind of solution here; the consequences for the financing of all the other multifaceted programs and processes at work in a complex city, programs and processes which many individuals, families, and businesses are dependent upon, would be too great. And, it must be emphasized, it is to the credit of city leaders that they have very carefully worked out revenue-sharing and other agreements with the team (assuming it does, in fact, come) to provide some guaranteed coverage for the costs.
    2c) So in other words, my attitude is: yes, criticize the overall process, imagine ways to move our city--and America's urban economies generally--towards something more sustainable and less bizarre, but in the meantime, work within the system as best you can.

3) All that said, leaving aside a deep-dive into the systematic particulars of the financing place for the new baseball stadium doesn't mean there aren't larger questions worth asking about the whole arrangement. Let me suggest a few here:
    3a) In a lengthy and exceptionally well-research article in the Eagle, Carrie Rengers quotes multiple sources making clear something that academics who study these issues have known for years: that the indirect public financing of the construction of expensive athletic venues is almost never justified in terms of subsequent economic development. Given the long and not-always-successful history of baseball in Wichita, I would be interested to know in detail not just why Mayor Longwell and others thinks their plan is financially solid, but more importantly, what convinced him that attracting a AAA baseball was project to take this risk upon, as opposed to something else.
    3b) Moreover, it is worth noting that of the three examples that Mayor Longwell has pointed to in support of his vision of providing an economic and cultural shot in the arm to the city through building what was necessary to bring a AAA team here, only one of them, according to Rengers's reporting, reflected a similarly convoluted set of financial incentives and land swaps--and that was Charlotte, NC, a city with a half-million more residents in its urban core and a million more people in its overall metropolitan area. So not, perhaps, an entirely good analogy to Wichita's situation. Of the other two examples Rengers reported on in detail, one, Durham, NC, did involve some significant city investment, but was actually mostly the result of multiple corporate owners committing their own capital, which obviously isn't the case here. The other example, Oklahoma City, involved the something impressively straightforward: the city directly payed for the stadium with specific, voter-approved tax increases. Which leads me to asking...
    3c) Councilman Bryan Frye, in a Facebook post, defended the importance of this project by pointing out that the "west bank of the Arkansas River between Douglas and Maple has languished for decades with little to no development interest, revenue creation, and/or investment in public amenities." Leaving aside exactly why it is a problem to have a one-third mile stretch of grass along the Arkansas River opposite the Hyatt hotel and Waterwalk Place fail in its (required? obligatory?) "revenue creation," I would ask why he followed up this defense by asserting that this project "had to be done without adding [to the] citywide taxpayer burden." Why? Besides the fact that, since property-tax-dependent general obligation bonds will almost certainly be involved, that isn't entirely true, was it really a complete given that the city couldn't have simply paid for a new stadium, as a public amenity, outright? Maybe--especially given how the last sales tax proposal turned out here in Wichita--it's reasonable to assume this; maybe the political culture of Wichita is just more negative and suspicious than OKC's, and so simply financing the stadium directly (the way Intrust Bank Arena was) wasn't an option.
    3d) But if that's the case, why not say so? Might it be that saying so--that if Mayor Longwell and others had, back in 2016, put it to the people of Wichita that attracting a AAA baseball to the city was worth paying for, up front--would have resulted rather in the discovery of a consensus in favor of simply maintaining the level of baseball we currently had, thus suggesting that city leaders and major players focus on developing political support for funding other priorities (like, oh, Century II?) Given that those other needs haven't gone away, it's a possible trade-off at least worth contemplating.

4) One last thought, related to "the level of baseball we currently had" which I just mentioned. It may well be the case that the confidence Mayor Longwell and others have in AAA baseball will be justified. (After all, Wichita, however slowly changing and growing it may be, is obviously a different place than it was in 1984, when the Wichita Aeros, the last AAA team to play here, departed for Buffalo, NY.) But until and unless we see those results, there remains the fact that the baseball which has had a long history of strong support here is the National Baseball Congress. The city has apparently already reneged on a promise to the owners of NBC to give them office space at the new stadium, and now the likelihood is that the NBC World Series--you know, that delightfully wacky and fun two-week series of baseball all through the day and night every August--will be forced out as well. If there is any way that existing baseball fans in Wichita--not the new ones that the city is counting on creating, but the ones that already existed last year and continue to exist this year as well--can push to shape this (as even city leaders admit) less-than-transparent process into something more reflective of public wishes, it would be in making certain that the World Series, which has had a home in Wichita since 1935, continues to be guaranteed a place.

Okay, I can't think of anything else. Enjoy the meeting, everyone and anyone who can make it. I hope that the result will involve both a showing of respect and some mutual learning by and for everyone involved, and the creation of greater confidence in bringing this project to a positive end.

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