Should Kansas City Taxpayers Foot the Bill for a New Downtown Stadium?

Kauffman Stadium at night%2C 2009

In many ways, Kauffman Stadium’s current location is an object lesson in the problems of the Suburban Experiment. It is single-use (so to speak), resistant to adaptation, auto-oriented, with a massive parking lot that sits empty most of the time. “If you build it, he will come,” says one of the greatest baseball movies ever. And the fans do come to Kauffman Stadium, but only from April through October, and only on game days, and only when the team isn’t on the road.

So boosters say a downtown stadium will be more accessible and have a greater economic impact on the city. They also point out the aesthetic possibilities. Target Field (Twins), Busch Stadium (Cardinals), Petco Park (Padres), PNC Park (Pirates), and other downtown stadiums offer stunning views of their cities. Imagine taking in a night game against the backdrop of the Kansas City skyline. I certainly can.

There’s another reason to build a new stadium in or near downtown, though, interestingly, it’s not one I’ve heard much about. And that is that there is an incredible history of baseball in the urban core of Kansas City.

When the Royals first debuted as a franchise in 1969, they played at Municipal Stadium, at the corner of 22nd and Brooklyn, about a mile-and-a-half from downtown. That stadium had been home to the Kansas City Blues, a minor league team, as well as the Kansas City Athletics. It had also been the home of the Kansas City Monarchs, a legendary Negro League team. Jackie Robinson made his professional debut at Municipal Stadium. Satchel Paige, Ernie Banks, Cool Papa Bell, and Buck O’Neill all played there, too.

Of course, one of the concerns is that a new stadium downtown would have a devastating impact on neighborhoods of color on Kansas City’s east side. It would take a special cynicism to use the legacy of those great players to justify displacing low-income people or people of color today. I want to believe the Royals wouldn’t do that. In the press conference Sherman said one of the criteria any new ballpark would have to meet is that it has “a positive impact in the quality of life for our citizens in Kansas City with a particular focus on those underrepresented parts of our community.”

Are Sports Stadiums Good for Local Economies?

When people make the case for using taxpayer money to build pro sports stadiums, they tend to talk up the economic benefits: construction jobs in the short-term, and a long-term boost to the local economy (more businesses, more jobs, more tax revenue, etc.).

But studies strongly suggest that publicly-funded stadiums don’t actually work out for taxpayers. Research from groups across the political spectrum have shown that the promised economic benefits generally don’t materialize, especially when a stadium is only going to be used periodically. (Basketball and hockey arenas can pull double duty, as venues for concerts, for example.)

Stanford economist Roger Noll has shown that the local economic impact of a professional sports team is less than we might think and that the taxpayers subsidizing new stadiums are often left holding the short end of the stick. Temple economist Michael Leeds has said that in a field (economics) rife with disagreements, the one thing his colleagues can agree upon is the economic impact of sports stadiums: To wit, there is none. In an interview with the radio show Marketplace in 2015, Leeds used Chicago as an example. “If every sports team in Chicago were to suddenly disappear, the impact on the Chicago economy would be a fraction of 1 percent. A baseball team has about the same impact on a community as a midsize department store.”

A 2015 working paper from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University stated it even more baldly: sports franchises may have an effect on the local economy…but the effect is highly limited and often a net-negative.

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