The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

26 September 2004

Mistakes on the lake

I have, perhaps, an inordinate fondness for the city of Cleveland, but it's always been perfectly obvious to me that for all its surface gloss, and its recent investment in high-dollar attractions such as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Jacobs Field, something was very wrong underneath it all. (During World Tour '01, I made a point of going through some of the more decrepit parts of town rather than visit the tourist traps.) And Cleveland's status as the nation's poorest large city, beating out even the likes of Detroit and Newark, would seem to confirm that wrongness.

Costa Tsiokos isn't surprised:

The much-publicized and promoted addition of these (nominally) publicly-owned venues had the desired effect: It gave a veneer of robustness to the city, when there really wasn't one. Unfortunately, their construction was more flash than anything else. It shows how much noise big-ticket projects like this make, while the nitty-gritty of hard socio-economic data tends to get ignored.

Or, as pundits of yore would have said, you can't spend yourself rich.

On another level, Cleveland's high poverty rate, despite all that investment into that concrete and glass, seems to debunk the chief arguments for indulging in these types of projects. Every metro area gets pitched a program of boosted revenue streams by virtue of having the newest and shiniest arena/concert hall/whatever. They're supposed to attract or retain major league sports, headlining concerts, tourism events and the like. Along with that, the halo effect would be the creation of grass-roots economic activity: Jobs at the venue, restaurants and other businesses around it, etc. These predictions are key to securing public funds for facilities that are used by private enterprises.

But despite playing the arena game as deftly as any other metro area, Cleveland has an anemic local economy to show for it. So why should any city or region sink public dollars into these things? Status is nice, but if it doesn't pay off for the local economy, the justification disappears.

Which is why when Oklahoma City assembled its wish list of Metropolitan Area Projects, the new shiny arena was only one of nine proposed investments in the central city, which cost upward of $300 million in aggregate but which have generated so far more than $1.6 billion in additional investment.

As more recent pundits might have said, "Go big — or go home."

Posted at 5:11 AM to Dyssynergy


As I sit here, about to get out my wallet to help pay for a $210 million (and counting) "public" arena in Newark (for hockey fans??), let me heartily concur. What makes the Newark arena an even bigger folly is that we went through this same charade decades ago with Atlantic City.

In the case of Newark part of the money will be spent to knock down neighborhoods where people live cheaply and where they start up stores and other small businesses which employ themselves and others like them. If that $210 million were spent on small business loans and home improvement and renovation loans, we'd end up with a self-sustaining downtown that wouldn't require as much in welfare and school aid.

But then, I'm not the governor or his boss, the mayor of Newark. (Thank God.)

Posted by: The Proprietor at 8:11 AM on 26 September 2004

I live 32 miles from downtown Cleveland. It would take approximately 715 wild horses to drag me anywhere near that place.

Posted by: sheila rene at 1:08 PM on 29 September 2004