Larson SAFE at Home

Baseball Boosters Seek Swing Vote

Get this. Bud Adams, owner of the Houston Oilers, is tired of the Astrodome and wants the city of Houston to subsidize a new $235 million dome downtown. Adams complains that the old dome is too small, too old, and that he has to share it with a baseball team. He maintains that in order for the Oilers to compete in the free agent market and "field a competitive team" (they were 2-14 last year), they need a larger stadium. He threatens that the Oilers will move away unless the new downtown dome is built. Mayor Bob Lanier says there are higher public priorities than football. Lanier, one of the most popular mayors in Houston history, has spurned all of Adams' attempts at city funding for a new stadium. Finally, on July 18, Adams wrote to Lanier, setting a July 25 deadline for the mayor to declare his "unqualified public support" for a new stadium.

Lanier wrote back, advising Adams to talk with Harris County officials because the Astrodome is a county stadium. He reminded Adams that the county share of the bed tax is already dedicated to paying off around $100 million of dome improvements during the 1980s. Ten thousand seats were added in that expansion, and Adams agreed to an Astrodome lease through 1997. Lanier also pointed out that he is a long-time season ticket holder, and expressed hope that the Oilers could sign Steve McNair and go to the Super Bowl.

Adams countered last week with a high-profile visit to football-hungry Nashville. There he agreed to a 70-day period of exclusive negotiations over a move to Nashville. During this period, he can't negotiate for better facilities with Houston, and Nashville can't negotiate with any other teams over a possible move. Nashville officials are even exploring ways of buying out the last year on Adams' Astrodome lease and moving the team to Tennessee for the 1997 season.

In response, Lanier once again reaffirmed his opposition to city funding for a stadium. The mayor also questioned the business wisdom of the potential move, pointing out that Houston is a much bigger media market than Nashville. He expressed hope that the Oilers would stay and predicted, rather sagely I suspect, that "they will have a hard time finding a city that will be as loyal to the Oilers over a period of time."

Now, it could be that Lanier, like a lot of fans, has had it with the Oilers and Adams' boneheaded management. Maybe he doesn't care what they do as long as it doesn't cost him or the city anything. On the other hand, it could be that Lanier is taking a much larger stand. For one thing, he is bucking a national trend in which cities compete for teams with ever-spiraling packages of taxpayer-financed incentives. County commissioners in Cincinnati recently approved an extra cent on their sales tax to finance two new stadiums at a total of $540 million. St. Louis spent more than $350 million to lure the Rams from Los Angeles.

As these bidding wars continue to escalate, Mayor Lanier is saying Houston won't play (although he holds out the possibility of some sort of new deal with the Rockets, who play in the city-owned Summit). In an era of government budget cutbacks, Lanier is saying that basic city services and programs for youth must come first. He appeared on the local news this weekend at a youth soccer field, explaining that this is the level of sport the city should fund.

Houston's citizens are solidly behind Lanier. In fact, Oilers officials complain that Lanier turned against a city-financed stadium for the
Oilers only after seeing poll numbers on the subject last year. And a recent, unscientific, Houston Chronicle call-in poll, conducted after Adams signed the negotiating deal with Nashville, revealed that 80% opposed public financing of the stadium. "Good riddance," read the Chronicle headline.

Regardless of whether Lanier is following the polls, acting out of conviction, or both, he is making a stand. The outcome could have far-reaching impact on professional sports financing, and on public attitudes about the use of tax dollars.

Meanwhile, at least one Houston businessman has advanced a startling concept in stadium financing. Jim McIngvale, described as "a business leader and Houston sports booster" in a front-page Houston Chronicle story on Adams' Nashville trip, says that a new stadium is worthwhile, but maintained that no public funds should be used. "I think a new stadium would do us good," says McInglave, adding pointedly that "public money could be better spent, but private enterprise ought to get out there and talk to business leaders about private funding."

Whoa. Now, imagine that - private business people investing in something that would likely pay off for them financially - what a concept. It sounds very unusual, but I think someone coined a term for this sort of endeavor a few years back. It's called capitalism.

Could there be any chance that this concept could catch on in our own teeming metropolis? Probably not.

The Minor Leagues

Austin's own sports financing drama recently took a dramatic turn. In a stunning victory for former Councilmember Bob Larson's Save Austin From Extravagance (SAFE) coalition, Phoenix Firebirds owner Martin Stone and Austin Mayor Bruce Todd last Friday acquiesced to SAFE's demands for an election on city subsidies to bring the AAA Firebirds (to be renamed the Austin Swing) to town. The city would contribute some $10 million, and the team $10 million, with another $3 million needed from the city for roads and other infrastructure. A council vote to set the election is scheduled for the day this paper comes out, August 17. The proposed election date is October 7.

Of course, this is the same council that in April voted unanimously (save for Brigid Shea, who was out of the country) to dedicate some $13 million in taxpayer dollars to the stadium. The funds were passed on an "emergency" basis, which is the only way to circumvent the city charter requirement that all bond debt must be approved by the voters. The majority of the city funds - $8.4 million - are to come from certificates of obligation (CO), bonds in everything but name. Another $1.6 million was obtained by allocating the city's entire "sales tax excess," meaning collections above what was predicted to come in. Another $3 million for stadium-related infrastructure, mainly roads, was approved even though the city aknowledged no source has been identified. This $3 million is no longer mentioned in official accounts, neither by the city nor by Swing corporate sponsor the Austin American-Statesman.

Larson styled SAFE narrowly around the issue that the charter requires an election. His core group consists of fiscal watchdogs who are angered by many of the things on which the city spends money, but Larson also forged coalitions with environmentalists and social advocacy groups who once despised him. For example, Public Citizen, a consumers' rights watchdog group that gathered many signatures in the 1992 Save Our Springs petition drive, signed on with SAFE. Also key in gathering signatures was Linda Curtis of the newly forged Patriot Party. Even the city employees' union - which once may have disliked Larson's politics even more than environmentalists did - collected signatures.

In the type of culture-melding for which Larson is becoming famous, the retired Air Force sergeant spent several Saturdays collecting signatures in front of the new Whole Foods grocery store. Shea, who defeated Larson to win her council seat, joined his cause and at least once collected signatures with him at Whole Foods.

Once an election is officially set, SAFE must decide whether or not to actually oppose the bond issue. This new alliance could be a potent addition to Austin politics, but Larson has said throughout that his goal is to get an election, and says now that he won't campaign publicly for or against the baseball funding. He offers, however, that his initial instinct is to vote "no" on the philosophical grounds that public funds could be better used elsewhere.

The Booster Line-up

One reason that Todd and Stone backed down is that public opinion seems to be running massively in favor of SAFE. A question in the most recent Austin Trends poll, still unreleased in full, asks respondents if they favor public votes on debt financing. An overwhelming 86% said "yes." A Statesman call-in poll conducted when the Firebirds deal was first announced produced similar margins against public subsidies for a stadium. While not entirely parallel, the results seem to echo public sentiment in Houston.

Many average folks in the two towns may be feeling alike on sports subsidies, but the story is different when it comes to Austin goverment and business leaders. In stark contrast to Houston, the majority of both groups are lined up in favor of public funding for a stadium. The most enthusiastic stadium backers on the council are Todd, Max Nofziger, and Ronney Reynolds. Reynolds worked behind the scenes for about six months to bring the team to town. (That's before the proposal was sprung on the public as an "emergency.") It's unclear, however, if the rest of the council will stay behind subsidized baseball. Gus Garcia, for example, has said that he will consider changing his support for public funds if the team doesn't meet its September 30 deadlines. But now, Todd is asking the council to extend and change some of those deadlines. (See "Naked City.")

Shea is likely to oppose the baseball subsidy, and has called on the council to put the entire $10 million on the bond ballot, and plough the $1.6 million in sales tax back into next year's budget. Garcia says he backs that approach. There is also controversy over the election date. Shea favors a November 7 date, when the city can save more than $80,000 by holding the election simultaneously with the state constitutional amendment election. Todd favors October 7 because, he says, that is the date he worked out with Stone. October 7, by the way, just happens to fall on the first Saturday of major league playoffs in two years. Swing backers are doubtless hoping that this little coincidence will help them turn out the fans to vote. We can expect to see campaign commercials during the games.

Meanwhile, an all-star lineup from what the Statesman calls the "business community" is ready to go to bat for public funding. In sports parlance, it's a veteran team that's been together for a long time, and features many of Austin's heaviest hitters. There's the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, longtime leaders in winning public subsidies for private ventures. Also on board is the Chamber's house organ, the Austin American-Statesman, which signed on in July as a corporate sponsor of the Swing. Joining along with them was KLBJ-AM radio - including talk show host Paul Pryor, who was originally a baseball subsidy critic. On Friday, the same day that Stone was summoned to the mayor's office and dropped his opposition to an election, Bank One, Miller Beer, and Pepsi were announced as new corporate sponsors. More corporate sponsors are likely to join up as booster forces move toward the election. Also on board, though not as corporate sponsors, are the editor and publisher of this paper.

Lessons from
the Sports Pages

Sports can be a metaphor for life. As such, we can often learn from them. Also, these dramas provide us some raw, freeze-frame glimpses of city leaders in action. So let's study some lessons from the sports financing controversies of Austin and Houston.

The most vivid lesson on display here is how routinely Austin's "business community" relies on taxpayer subsidies, to a much greater degree than some of their counterparts in Texas. A related lesson is how eagerly Austin's political leadership hands out these subsidies. If the Chamber of Commerce suggests a subsidy (remember the proposed $60 million subsidy for the downtown mall?), it immediately becomes a higher priority than basic city services or taxpayers' well being. At the time of the baseball "emergency," word was spreading that some calls to the city's emergency 911 number were going unanswered. It was also known, among other things, that the city was falling behind on maintaining an adequate fleet of police cars, fire trucks, and ambulances. Yet the stadium will add to the tax burden at a time when it is becoming increasingly difficult for people of average means to afford living in Austin. Is it just coincidence that the loss of the $1.6 million in excess sales tax collections, combined with this year's debt service on the CO, equals almost exactly the revenue expected to be generated from the proposed property tax increase?

Another sad thing is the eternal bad timing of city government/boosters. In the 1980s, the city bought two buildings for millions over the appraised values just before Austin became the empty office capital of North America. Around the same time, they bought land for a coal plant in Webberville, then admitted that the city had more than enough generating capacity, and didn't need the plant. Now, they get into subsidized baseball in the midst of lingering bitterness over the major leaguers' strike, and while public opinion is against such frivolous expenditures.

The baseball drama also provides a glimpse of the Statesman's coziness with the "business community." It seems particularly raw and apparent in this case. It's even official. But the emerging drama of new Statesman editor Richard Oppel complicates the situation somewhat. Some real information has made it into Statesman baseball coverage, but there has been a definite pattern of failure to mention that the paper is a partner or corporate sponsor of the deal. Baseball will be Oppel's first big test. Can he really obtain his goal of "fierce independence" when his paper is a Swing corporate sponsor?

Is Private Enterprise Dead?

In Austin, there has been no call for total private financing, at least none that has appeared in the pages of the corporate sponsor. Why not? Pepsi stands to sell a lot of sodas at the stadium. Miller can sell a lot of beer. KLBJ will likely get the broadcast rights. Bank One will probably make a loan and/or get some deposits. And is it just me, or does it seem a little odd for a monopoly newspaper to be sponsoring a drive for municipal baseball subsidies? As a matter of fact, it seems odd that a bank would be campaigning in favor of public subsidies for baseball. If this is a solid deal, why doesn't the bank lend all the money needed to make it happen?

If bringing minor league baseball to Austin is in these companies' interest, then they should get together and cut a deal. It could be a beautiful thing. After all, attending minor league games can be, as team owners maintain, a nice way to spend an evening, or many evenings. It is a great place to take kids. Baseball does, as claimed, bring citizens together. There could be people of all races, classes, and political persuasions there together, cheering on the home team. Democrats could cheer alongside Republicans, developers with environmentalists - Chronicle and Statesman reporters cheering side-by-side. And it could all be financed under the grand old American tradition of free enterprise.

If nothing else, we will have a lot of political drama this fall, from now through the baseball election. Swing backers will wax eloquently about the glories of baseball, and gloss over the fact that it's a very lucrative private business. They will likely have the cooperation of all corporate media, including puffy coverage on the local news. This, combined with the heavy hitting booster line-up and the election date during the major league playoffs will make the Swing a tough team to beat.

In contrast to the seasoned pro-subsidy team, any opposition that emerges will be like an expansion team cobbled together just before the season begins. But, hey, in sports anything can happen. Maybe citizens will join together and send a message to the Chamber, the corporations, and their politicians; a message that public funds are precious and should not be spent frivolously. Maybe some of our elected officials will show the strength and courage displayed by Mayor Bob Lanier down there in Houston. Maybe even some business leaders in Austin will emerge and, like Mr. McIngvale of Houston, suggest that the stadium be financed entirely through private investment. It could be beautiful. And one day, we could all gather at the ballpark by the river, and root for our beloved home team. n

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