You Gotta Have Hope

Everyone in the Wedgewood Room at the Wyndham Greenspoint Hotel knew who Dan Patrick was. For good reason: every year, the KSEV-AM talk-show host treks out just beyond Beltway 8 to speak to the North Houston Greenspoint Chamber of Commerce, and whenever he shows up, he draws a crowd.

Normally, not many people in downtown Houston take note of Patrick's talk to the NHGCC. But last week they did. Once again, for good reason: the conservative commentator's vocal opposition to the stadium proposition on next month's ballot promised to be warmly accepted in the northern suburbs, where urban revitalization is considered more outdated fantasy than realistic possibility. So the pro-stadium forces led by Dave Walden, Mayor Bob Lanier's top aide and the chief strategist for the "Vote Yes" campaign, insisted that the Greenspoint chamber give them equal time. Trial attorney Tom Alexander volunteered (he says he was asked to do so by Astros owner Drayton McLane) to take on Patrick in what would be the first point-counterpoint discussion of the proposed stadium held outside KSEV's studios.

Stadium boosters perhaps expected the silver-haired Alexander to use his lawyerly wit and logic to neutralize Patrick's radioland reasoning. What quickly became clear, however, was that Alexander had been sent into battle full of folksy good humor but woefully short of details on why voters should roll up their sleeves to build McLane a new ballpark and further renovate the Astrodome for football and the rodeo.

If Alexander's presentation was any indication of what we can expect from the upcoming $750,000 pro-stadium PR campaign, then county voters are likely to be provided little illumination on the proposal's finer points. Instead, they can anticipate a barrage of appeals for a "positive attitude."

"This city was not built, and our position in the world was not maintained, by negative 'No' votes," declared Alexander, who called skeptics "nabobs of negativity," an unfortunate nod to recently deceased bribe-taker and tax cheat Spiro Agnew.

In addition to harping on Houston's glory days and pitching for team spirit, Alexander touched on another campaign theme -- the deal's alleged payoff to taxpayers. Not only will no property or sales taxes be involved, he claimed, but the payout in "economic impact" from the rodeo, the Astros and other sports teams will suck a ton of money into the local economy. In addition, as a campaign "fact sheet" that's being provided to the media claims, vote for the stadium deal and "the facilities that will follow in the downtown and Astrodome area will increase the ability to attract more conventions and tourists. This would mean hundreds of millions of dollars over the next 30 years!"

Unfortunately, many of those assurances tend to dissolve under cursory scrutiny. While it's true that any deals for a new ballpark and Astrodome improvements would be structured to avoid the short-term use of property or sales taxes to pay for construction, that's only part of the story.

For example, there's the matter of the city's guarantee of $15 million against the sale of personal seat licenses for the downtown ballpark to consider. Under the agreement signed by Lanier, County Judge Robert Eckels, McLane and Enron's Ken Lay, the city has to cover any shortfall if McLane can't convince enough people to pony up a few thousand dollars simply for the right to buy a season ticket. The public's willingness to pay that premium -- when decent seats are likely to be available any time a fan wants to attend -- remains to be seen, since PSLs have never before been sold in baseball.

If the public balks and the city has to pick up, say, a $5 million PSL tab, the cash would have to be drawn from the city treasury, concedes mayoral spokeswoman Barbara Mendel. That would mean less money for other programs.

Other taxpayer subsidies of a new ballpark are less direct. The rebate of the levy on alcohol sales proposed to cover part of the public cost is revenue that would otherwise go to the state's coffers -- meaning taxpayers in Abilene and El Paso will be doing their part for McLane. Meanwhile, the additional county tax on vehicle rentals will fall heavily on locals, who account for about half of the rentals in Harris County.

Then there's the maintenance and upkeep on a new ballpark. Though Eckels says he'd like McLane to absorb those expenses, such a commitment does not appear in the agreement. And Eckels acknowledged on Patrick's radio show on October 1 that a future Commissioners Court could well vote to spend public money to maintain or upgrade the stadiums -- which could become an important issue down the line. Such renovations don't come cheap, as the $130 million still left to pay on the 1988 Astrodome retrofit proves.

As for boosters' claims of enormous economic gain from a new baseball stadium, the evidence to back them up is thin indeed. The few independent studies that have been conducted on the impact of stadiums seem to show the opposite, that they have either minimal or even negative effect on local economies. The primary reason, as Robert Baade's oft-cited 1994 Heartland Institute study of stadiums in 48 cities emphasizes, is that most of the spending generated by the ballparks is not new money, but simply local money that's been shifted from other sources.

In addition, though the implication of claims of positive economic impact is that most citizens wind up pocketing some of the dough, the bulk of the spending tends to go into a very few pockets. The present agreement between the city, county and the Astros underscores that fact -- every penny of ballpark revenue, including the naming rights for the publicly owned facility, is McLane's for the having.

Though none of these potential taxpayer losses will necessarily be incurred, their possibility carries a lot more weight than the blithe assurances to the contrary offered by Alexander and the "Vote Yes" side. That's why at the Wyndham Greenspoint last Thursday, Alexander, boxed in by Dan Patrick's factual jabs, could only fall back on platitudes. Asked by a rotund man at the back of the Wedgewood Room what part of the stadium plan guaranteed that the city of Houston would flourish with a downtown sports facility, he replied gamely, "That's not included in the plan. It's included in the hope.


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