Edifice Complex: Cities Can't Build Stadiums Fast Enough

Article excerpt

Nearly 2,000 years ago, Roman taxpayers footed the bill for the Colosseum, a multipurpose, 45,000-seat stadium with a retractable fabric roof, luxury boxes for the emperor and his guests, and a club level for senators and VIPs. To this day it stands as an enduring symbol of Rome.

Twenty-five years ago, Cincinnati taxpayers put up the money for Riverfront Stadium, a multipurpose, 55,000-seat, state-of-the-art facility. It now is deemed obsolete and could be torn down.

The modern emperors of sport are still going to the taxpayers in the biggest boom of stadium and arena construction in history. And if the taxpayers are unwilling, they face the threat of losing their teams.

At least $15 billion, most of it public money, may be spent this decade on more than 75 stadiums and arenas for the four major sports leagues in the U.S. and Canada.

Already 21 stadiums or arenas have opened since 1990 or are due to open this year, 12 are under construction, and 46 are wanted as soon as possible by either team owners or city officials. Current prices range from about $150 million for a cozy arena to upwards of $300 million for a retractable dome stadium with every imaginable indulgence.

Multpurpose On Way Out

"Multipurpose stadiums are soon to become extinct," said Ron Labinski, senior vice president of HOK, a leading architectural firm for stadiums and arenas. "They were the result of poor planning in the first place, and that's why so many of them are being abandoned so soon. The whole notion of the multipurpose stadium in the '60s and '70s was flawed."

Unlike the Colosseum, used for 500 years to stage games, naval battles, and gladiatorial and bestial carnage, many baseball and football stadiums these days have become obsolete in 25 years or less.

That's not because they're crumbling but because they don't have enough of what are known as "revenue streams" - luxury boxes, suites, club seats - that pour money into the owners' pockets.

One of the newest arenas, the 2-year-old, $177 million, city-owned Alamodome in San Antonio, already is on the endangered list as the Spurs consider a new home where they can charge more.

So what do the cities get for their money, besides a home team and a place where the wealthy can hobnob in luxury boxes with $120 Dom Perignon? Sometimes they get decades of staggering debt, as Montreal did with Olympic Stadium and Louisiana did with the Superdome.

Cities often justify using public money for stadiums based on a "multiplier" that supposedly indicates how much spinoff revenue from tourists and businesses the facilities generate for a city. But some economists argue that those multipliers - 1.5 to 3 times the amount of direct expenditures - are arbitrary, false and misleading. Benefits Questioned

"In the face of these widely varying estimates of expenditures benefits from a new stadium or from hosting a team, the correct attitude is one of skepticism," economists James Quirk and Rodney D. Fort wrote in "Pay Dirt," a book on the business of sports.

Economist Robert Baade has conducted studies that show stadiums are a poor investment for cities and states compared to, say, an industrial park.

The flip side of the stadium furor, which is raging nationwide, is that it can be a win-win-win situation for teams, fans and cities, as it has been so far in Cleveland with Jacobs Field, in Baltimore with Camden Yards, and in Denver with Coors Field. Though too soon to say whether those ballparks will return all the money they cost to build and maintain, they clearly have been the centerpieces of the growth around them while the teams have thrived.

That doesn't mean similar stadiums in other cities, such as the proposed ballpark in San Francisco's China Basin, will have the same effect or that they deserve public funds. As successful as Coors Field has been in improving the LoDo - lower downtown - area of Denver, many residents resent a higher sales tax for a privately owned team they don't watch. …