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.
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