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Welcome words on new Fenway

By Derrick Z. Jackson, Globe Staff, 04/05/00

Fearful of being caught spraying money into the "o-zone," the zone of obsequiousness, Mayor Menino has recycled himself as the environmentally responsible activist against CFCs, craven Fenway capitation.

Last weekend Menino said the Red Sox and Major League Baseball should invest more of their own money in a new Fenway Park before asking for public subsidies. When the Red Sox do come after taxpayer wallets, Menino wants a guarantee that the funds will be repaid.

"The city would have to make money or at least be sure we would get our money back and nothing I've seen has convinced me of that," Menino said. He also said, "I'm not trying to kill the project. I'm still a big supporter of a new ballpark. I just want to be sure we get a return on our investment."

If this is the real Menino talking, it is a welcome one, given the early signs that he might crack open the city's piggy bank for $60 million to $100 million to acquire land for the Red Sox for their stadium. Already, this sudden seizure of stoutness has Beacon Hill observers thinking that there is no way the team can now ram its anticipated, brazen request for $250 million in welfare through the Legislature before the July adjournment.

That may buy Menino a few months of time to ask why the Red Sox need public help for skyboxes while the city's public school test scores are at the bottom of the ocean. He is still a long way from repairing the early holes in his o-zone. Few leaders, once they let slip that they are "a big supporter of a new ballpark," can ultimately protect themselves from a team's ultraviolet rays. The sunburn has many mayors and legislators undergoing political chemo.

In Cleveland, Mayor Michael White unveiled plans in 1997 for a $247 million Browns football stadium, mostly paid for by the city. That was done to bring a new team to Cleveland after the original Browns left for Baltimore. Since then, White has enraged his city council with price hikes and short-term financing costs that have turned the $247 million stadium into a fiscal nightmare of between $314 million and $349 million.

Browns billionaire owner Al Lerner is paying only a token share of the cost overruns. This winter Cleveland City Council President Michael Polensek said that the Browns "got the profits. They got the stadium. We got the bills." Polensek said of the stadium, which opened last season, "So much has gone into it, and yet the overwhelming majority of Cleveland citizens cannot afford to go there. The NFL took us to the cleaners, and this is the price that our city paid collectively to get the Browns back."

In Seattle in the mid-1990s, despite fears that the Mariners baseball team might move, voters rejected a sales tax to fund a new stadium. But pimping their popularity after upsetting the Yankees in the playoffs, the team's 16 millionaire and billionaire owners got the Legislature and the King County Council to impose new stadium taxes on the people.

The retractable-roof stadium, which opened last summer, was supposed to have cost $417 million, with $372 million coming from the public. But $100 million of overruns drove the project to $517 million, the most expensive stadium to date in the United States. The Mariners were supposed to eat any new costs, but the shameless owners last summer still asked for taxpayers to pay for $60 million of the overruns.

That first thrust failed. The Mariners paid the cost overruns. A month and a half ago, King County Executive Ron Sims vowed that "There's not going to be one more dime of public money expended for the stadium." That remains to be seen. The Mariners have just begun a new bid to be reimbursed for the overruns at county expense, claiming the public agency that built Safeco was guilty of poor management.

Last summer, Cynthia Sullivan of the King County Council said, "I think all the unmitigated gall on the face of the earth right now resides at Mariner headquarters." Even more galling for Mariners fans is that they now have a new stadium, but the team was forced to trade its unhappy star, Ken Griffey Jr.

We can go to other cities, which will be the next column. The point is that many mayors, governors, and legislators have promised not to spray money into the o-zone only to succumb to obsequiousness.

Menino has resisted craven Fenway capitation at the moment, which is good. But he also says he is a big supporter of a new ballpark, which puts him at risk of sunburn. He will need a lot more suntan oil. The Red Sox and Major League Baseball have just begun to turn up the ultraviolet.

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