"What did you expect?
Shocking. That’s the impression you get reading the daily newspaper about impending cost overruns for the new football stadium being built downtown.
I mean, here we are, still in the first blush of construction, and there’s only $17 million left in the project’s contingency fund. It seems the cost of steel has gone up — that retractable roof is going to run at least $20 million more than was originally estimated. And the soil where the site is located is toxic. Dealing with that is turning out to be expensive. Oh, and there’s going to have to be a parking garage because the city wasn’t able to acquire sufficient space to build a big enough surface lot. The bill for a garage starts at around $15 million, but as our friends on the library board can tell us, sometimes the cost of a parking garage can bite you in the, well, you know where.
All of this means that — stop the presses! — the football stadium could cost more than was originally advertised.
But did you really think this thing was going to come in on budget? Did anyone?
The fact is that it’s more shocking for a stadium to come in costing what people say it will. Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist from Smith College, was quoted in a story by Karen Eschbacher published by Knight Ridder: “Easily three-quarters of sports facilities have cost overruns. They can run anywhere between 20 and 50 percent. Sometimes they’re even considerably above that.”
In Washington, D.C., they’re contemplating a new baseball stadium. So The Washington Post took a look at nine publicly financed Major League baseball stadiums. Six cost more than had been projected. The overruns ran from $30 million for the Philadelphia Phillies to $115 million for the Arizona Diamondbacks.
In addition to costing more than expected, nowadays most stadiums are also built with public money, that is, tax dollars. We love our sports beyond reason — that’s who we are — and so, while we may grumble about it, we continue to elect politicians who continue to make deals with the so-called “sportsmen” who own professional teams. This in spite of the fact that research shows the return on investment to a city provided by a big league sports stadium is dubious at best. But so far, no elected official, be he mayor, governor or dog catcher, wants to be tagged as the one who let the team get away.
Most politicians, though, have highly developed survival skills. And so, when they sit down with the owners of pro sports teams, politicians cover their posteriors by insisting that any cost overruns be paid for by the teams for whom the stadiums are being built. This is common practice.
Alas, this common practice was not followed in Indianapolis.
So here we are, wringing our hands over the mounting costs of our football palace, wondering how those costs will be paid for.
Some folks have speculated that money budgeted to build the new convention center might have to be diverted for the stadium. After all, they say, the stadium and the convention center are really part of the same package. There’s a kind of pretzel logic in this. It was the need to expand the convention center onto land occupied by the RCA Dome that created the pretext for building a new stadium in the first place. Indeed, although it has been grossly overshadowed in the press and the popular imagination by the Colts, the convention center has always provided the underlying justification for this project. Downtown’s economy needs it. It will be ironic, which is putting it generously, if the convention center expansion gets short-changed.
But somehow I doubt that will happen. I doubt it for the same reason I doubt that any of our public officials are really shocked about the money pit the stadium is threatening to become. While additional tax monies for a football stadium would be, in the words of John Klipsch, the man in charge of the Indiana Stadium and Convention Building Authority, “unacceptable,” the picture tilts when you say, “convention center.” Any money diverted from the convention center will most likely be recovered somehow — perhaps in the form of still higher user taxes on items like rental cars and hotel rooms, or through some other form of tax increase down the line.
One of Mitch Daniels’ first acts as governor was to pull the rug out from under Bart Peterson and take control of the stadium project. Some people today think Daniels might have stepped into more than he bargained for. But Daniels, you’ll recall, came here from the capital of cost overruns, Washington, D.C., where, as head of the Office of Management and Budget, he confidently called the Iraq war “an affordable endeavor.” I have a feeling he might say the same thing about that hole in the ground on the south end of downtown. No doubt he’ll find a way for us to pay for that, too.