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Let taxpayers share wealth

By Derrick Z. Jackson, Globe Columnist, 5/31/2000

ince two can play pie-in-the-sky, taxpayers should not be shy about what they get for their $275 million that the Red Sox want for a new $627 million Fenway Park. Forget the nickel and dime negotiating over parking garage revenues. Forget the hopeless scheming for more leisure taxes. Forget being lulled into sympathy by the fact that the Sox give money to charity.

Taxpayers should no longer live on the edge of the stadium, isolated in the bleachers and banished behind the Green Monster, waiting for a home run to drop into their hands like the lottery. It is time to get into the skybox. If the Red Sox want the public to pay for 43 percent of the stadium project, fine. Build the park. Build it now. Time is running out on the dream of seeing Pedro Martinez strike out Mark McGwire in the ninth inning of the seventh game of the 2005 World Series.

There is just one catch. If the taxpayers build 43 percent of the park, they should get 43 percent of the ownership of the team.

As I said, taxpayers should not be shy. Besides, all they would be doing is forcing Red Sox CEO John Harrington to live up to - or eat - his own grandiose words.

In a recent Globe op-ed piece, Harrington referred to stadium subsidies as an ''investment'' no less than five times. He said he wants to maintain the ''extraordinary relationship with this community.'' Since it has been quite ordinary for cities to lose $200 million and $300 million on stadiums, nothing could be more extraordinary than to make this ''investment'' the real thing.

Public ownership of teams has been suggested by everyday fans as well as people who study stadium subsidies for a living. Jay Weiner, author of ''Stadium Games,'' a new book on stadium funding, said, ''Citizens who help to fund a ballpark that boosts the owners' wealth must share in the increased value of the teams.

''How? When teams are sold to new owners, the city must get a piece of that windfall. That can help to pay off the costs of the stadium. Or, in exchange for funding the new Fenway, the city must get an equity stake in the team. Owners always talk of partnerships. Here's their chance to put their money where their mouth is.''

Since 43 percent is not a controlling interest, the Sox would still get to run the team the way they want, which lately is pretty well. But the taxpayers, who have up to now been asked by these robber barons to mine the baseball diamonds, no longer need be left behind in cold, dark caves of debt. They can share in the gleaming profits at the jewelry store.

The skyrocketing value of teams with new stadiums should end any more taxpayer subsidies that do not involve an equity stake. According to a new Forbes magazine survey, the value of the Cleveland Indians has gone up from $45 million in 1986 to $364 million today. The Baltimore Orioles has gone up from $70 million in 1989 to $347 million. The Texas Rangers have risen from $123 million in 1991 to $294 million.

The Atlanta Braves have soared in value from $83 million in 1991 to $388 million. The Seattle Mariners have jumped from $79 million in 1991 to $290 million, the Detroit Tigers from $85 million to $200 million, the Houston Astros from $95 million in 1991 to $280 million, the Colorado Rockies from $110 million in 1994 to $305 million, and the Arizona Diamondbacks from $130 million in 1995 to $268 million.

The San Francisco Giants, despite being forced to finance their new ballpark privately, have risen in value from $99 million to $237 million. The only team not to see exponential gains was the Chicago White Sox, which built the ugliest of the new stadiums and has been playing to mediocre crowds.

How taxpayers are paid back is certainly negotiable, whether in annual payments to state and city coffers or in a massive lump whenever the team is sold. But let no baseball owner say it cannot happen. The value of teams increases so immensely with new stadiums and their skyboxes that the only roadblock against a true ''public-private partnership'' is owner greed.

Harrington whined, ''to play here for another 100 years we do need the kind of public investments'' that are ''justified by the return to the state and the city in hard economic benefits.'' Since studies show there are no such returns when the public pays $200 million and $300 million for stadiums, taxpayers should demand the hardest economic benefit possible.

The Red Sox were worth $160 million in 1991. Even without a new Fenway, they are now worth $284 million, the 10th-most-valuable franchise out of baseball's 30 teams, according to Forbes.

The team will be worth so much more with a new Fenway, taxpayers should call the team's bluff as to whose ''investment'' this is and who benefits most from this ''extraordinary relationship.''

Build the stadium. Build it now. But if the taxpayers pay 43 percent of the cost of building the mine, it gets 43 percent of the diamonds. Otherwise, all the taxpayers get is the shaft.

Derrick Z. Jackson is a Globe columnist.

This story ran on page A21 of the Boston Globe on 5/31/2000.
© Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.

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