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Don’t let government build an obsolete stadium

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Don’t let government build an obsolete stadium
by Kurt St. Angelo
@2005 Libertarian Writers' Bureau

About 21 years ago I was one of the several thousand who publicly greeted then-owner Robert Irsay at the Hoosier Dome when he brought his Colts franchise to town.

It’s hard now to believe that the city of Indianapolis – with help of a county-wide hospitality tax granted by the state General Assembly and a generous $25 million grant from the Lilly Endowment – built an $82 million, 63,000-seat professional football stadium on pure speculation, without having a team to play in it.

Less than 13 years later, by the time it was politically acceptable to mention it, Colts’ owner Jim Irsay appeared on national television to call for a new publicly funded stadium. As then-chairman of the Libertarian Party of Marion County, I publicly denounced this idea. I asked how an $82 million public works project could become obsolete shortly more than a decade after it was built.

The straight and fundamental answer is that the RCA Dome was built by three entities that had no experience in the business of professional football: a local government, a state government and a tax-exempt foundation.

Why should we have expected anything but a no-frills building, one that had too few luxury suites and too few fancy club seats to turn an NFL team moderately profitable in the modern age?

Relying on the usual experts lacking imagination and foresight, government built a facility that was too small, and was neither expandable nor convertible. Worse, it tied the project to special interest groups, such as downtown parking-lot owners.

But the main problem with government-built stadiums like the RCA Dome is that no one is really accountable for the decisions once the stadiums turn out to be inappropriate. The William Hudnut administration, which built the Dome and brought the Colts to town, was long gone before the inadequacies of the facility become apparent.

For example, the RCA Dome has always been small by NFL standards. However, since adding extra luxury suites and club seats in 1998, the Dome is the NFL’s smallest with 57,500 seats.

Major League Baseball once considered Indianapolis in an expansion. However, due to lack of planning, it would have cost over $40 million to convert the RCA Dome to baseball. Later, MLB abandoned offering franchises to cities with indoor stadiums.

Game parking is inadequate and expensive around the RCA Dome. Event parking more than a mile from the Dome starts at $5. The Dome has no underground parking and very little parking revenue to share with an NFL team owner.

(To the credit of the Hudnut administration, the RCA Dome is modest. In real terms, it cost about as much as Conseco Fieldhouse, which holds over 17,000. Other than lacking adequate profit-enhancing amenities to keep NFL franchises happy, the Dome is a very functional stadium that is used 200-plus times per year, only 10 of which are for regularly-scheduled professional football games.)

Now Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson wants to relive the glory days of the Hudnut administration, but without that past administration’s modesty. If Peterson gets his way, taxpayers will spend over $500 million to build the NFL’s newest stadium, premiering in 2008.

In inflation-adjusted terms, that’s about three times the real expense of the ill-planned RCA Dome. The Colts have agreed to contribute only $100 million to the project, a third of which is in the form of a favorable NFL loan.

Indianapolis would be smarter to follow the recent lead of Washington. Last week by a 7-to-6 vote, Washington’s city council voted against the deal struck between Major League Baseball and Mayor Anthony Williams, which required the city to build a new $579 million stadium for the former Montreal Expos. Mayor Williams now has until June to find private financing for the other half of the stadium’s costs.

That’s the kind of deal the voters of Indianapolis should demand. Less government involvement in the city’s next stadium means less risk for taxpayers, better planning and less pressure to raise taxes. We should resist the temptation to let government build another obsolete stadium.

(Originally published December 21, 2004)

About the Author

Attorney, screenwriter and Libertarian Party activist in Indianapolis


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