When I read the recent headline “Cumberland County agrees to fund share of baseball stadium,” I rolled my eyes. I’d known this was coming, and it was late in the day, so I didn’t actually read the piece. I figured I’d get to it later.
If I’d had any idea what was written just a few lines down, I’d not have been so nonchalant.
When I finally read the article the following morning, I nearly choked on my coffee. There it was, in the second sentence.
The county’s share of the $33 million stadium has yet to be determined, but the county’s preliminary plan is to shift tax revenue currently earmarked for schools to the stadium project.
OK, wait. That can’t be right. The plan is to shift money from schools to a ballpark? Surely someone got that wrong. It’s a typo, or the reporter was confused, or someone sabotaged the website text. That just can’t be right.
So I went digging and found a longer, more detailed report, this one in the Fayetteville Observer. And right there it was again.
The resolution says the county will provide increased revenue from a special tax district for the stadium. …
The resolution says the agreement would be contingent on the county school board agreeing to eliminate the increased tax revenue from a funding agreement the school system has with the county.
County Manager Amy Cannon and Faircloth met with school officials about the issue. She said the school board is expected to approve the revenue being left out of the funding agreement.
So, at this point, I’m thinking that maybe there’s something strange going on in Cumberland County that I don’t know about. Maybe they’re awash with cash. Maybe the schools have so much money that they don’t know what to do with it all.
And so I checked that angle. In 2014-15, which is the latest data available, Cumberland County ranked 92nd out of 115 districts in per-student expenditure. Just looking at local dollars — the money county commissioners control — Cumberland ranked 71st in North Carolina.
But it gets even worse. According to the Statewide Facility Needs Survey 2015-16, published in April, Cumberland County has more than $142 million in school renovation, addition, and equipment needs. The reason that number is particularly important is that those sorts of capital needs are mostly funded locally.
All of which means that the County Commission is literally choosing to invest in balls, rather than halls.
I love baseball. I probably go to a dozen minor-league games a year, and always at least two or three big-league contests. I subscribe to mlb.tv and watch a game just about every day all season long. (There’s actually one on right now as I write.)
I keep score. And I love ballparks. My family vacation this summer was planned entirely around seeing my first game at Fenway, and it was magical. So let me just be clear that I’m not in any way opposed to a ballpark or a minor league team in Fayetteville. Actually, I think that sounds great.
But I am opposed to taking taxpayers’ money away from schools with millions of dollars of capital needs and instead directing them toward a ballpark. The fact that Cumberland County commissioners are planning to do so is worrying. It demonstrates to me that those county commissioners have bought the line that ballparks have to have public money in order to be viable and that they’re great investments that generate far more than they cost in additional tax revenue. Neither is true.
First, that first assumption: Fenway Park in Boston, one of the most wonderful parks I’ve ever visited, was built without public money. So was AT&T Park in San Francisco, which is routinely ranked as one of the best, if not THE best, ballpark in the country. Sure, most other ballparks are built with public money, but Fenway and AT&T prove that’s not actually necessary, as I wrote earlier this year.
Second, the economic impact estimates for these sorts of projects are routinely grossly exaggerated. Even if the estimates were correct, we still couldn’t possibly know what might otherwise have been built on the land that the city is going to use for a ballpark. We can’t know how much tax revenue that other use would have generated, or how much employment, or at what salaries. So we can’t possibly know that the ballpark is the best use of those dollars.
What we do know, however, is that the schools need $142 million, and, instead of meeting some of those needs, the county is going to use millions to build a ballpark for a minor-league affiliate of the Houston Astros. According to Forbes, the Astros are worth $1.1 billion, with revenue of $270 million and operating income of $66.6 million.
County commissioners, do you really think the ballpark is a better use of taxpayers’ money than the schools?
Julie Tisdale is city and county policy analyst for the John Locke Foundation.