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Spending taxpayer dollars on sports stadiums will not help Detroit

Politicians are falling all over themselves in Washington and in Lansing to oppose spending any money to, as they put it, “bail out” Detroit.

South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham tried to amend one bill to prevent a bailout. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a likely Presidential contender, said any help for Detroit would happen, “over my dead body.” Other lawmakers, mostly Republicans, have been just as vehement about it. These are, incidentally, often people who voted for billions for our war in Iraq a decade ago, and also flatly opposed helping the auto companies when they were on the ropes.

Their zeal to prevent any money from going to Detroit seems to be a waste of energy; the White House has all but ruled out doing much to help Detroit. Nor is there much chance that the Michigan legislature is going to appropriate new revenues for the city.

By the way, what you might not realize from all this is that Detroit hasn’t even asked for a bailout. Politicians, especially, Republicans, seem to like to bash Detroit just because it is there.

True, Detroit may not have asked for any money because the city knows it wouldn’t get any. However, there is one group of Detroiters who the government is willing to bail out.

They are the billionaires who own major league sports teams, and who want new playpens. In fact, just days after Detroit filed for bankruptcy protection, the state of Michigan indicated it would be happy to spend nearly three hundred million taxpayer dollars to help Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch build a new stadium downtown.

Why? Well, Governor Snyder said the new hockey arena would help move Detroit, “to being a place that will be recognized across the world as a place of great value and a place to invest.”

Well, gosh. If we only had known. Why, Detroit could have built a bunch of new stadiums with taxpayer dollars years ago, and could have been in great shape today. Except… it did. Detroit built new taxpayer subsidized homes for the Tigers and Lions less than fifteen years ago. Know what economic impact they had on the city? Almost none. Yes, fans come to the games, and some go to bars and restaurants afterwards. But most just get in their cars and go home.

Detroit is not alone in this. There have been all sorts of studies of the economic impact of new stadiums on cities. The bottom line is that there isn’t any. Two years ago, University of Chicago economist Allen Sanderson told the Nation magazine, “If you want to inject money into the local economy, it would be better to drop it from a helicopter than invest it in a new ballpark.”

Yet new stadiums add glitter, and few question them. Michigan Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer did say she thought investing money in public safety and schools would be a better choice. But that’s so boring.

So Detroiters may lose their pensions. But in a few years, they will have a new taxpayer-subsidized hockey stadium. And many may live to see their dollars build one again. After all, the current Red Wings stadium was brand new in the not so long ago year of … 1980.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, the University of Michigan.

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