Matters have been mostly quiet on the Oakland A’s stadium front since this spring, when Lew Wolff’s Fremont plan collapsed and Bud Selig commissioned a three-man team to investigate the team’s remaining options. That all changed on Thursday, when the city of San Jose released its economic impact projections for building a downtown ballpark there, prompting a slew of wild-eyed headlines about the riches that would rain down should the A’s land in San Jose.
A more careful read of the report itself (you can peruse it yourself here) reveals that an A’s stadium in downtown San Jose is projected to be worth about $65 million more (in present dollars) than allowing the site to be developed for other uses. While much of the methodology is murky — the report notes that it got much of its data from the team and MLB, and didn’t attempt to verify it — that doesn’t seem an unreasonable number: Some fans would visit San Jose who would otherwise spend their dollars elsewhere, especially so in a market with as many disparate population centers as the Bay Area.
So, would a San Jose A’s stadium be worth it? That all depends on what “it” is. The current plan is for the city (or the county, or one of the umpteen redevelopment agencies that seem to share jurisdiction in the area) to buy 14 acres of land adjacent to Diridon Station and the Sharks’ arena, and hand it over to the A’s to do with as they please. If the land is worth less than $4.6 million an acre — which is right around its current estimated value — then the city can at least claim it’s breaking even. And as an added bonus, it would help keep the public subsidy per full-time equivalent job at less than $100,000, which while not great, is at least below the level that becomes a totally egregious giveaway.
The bigger question here, to me, is how on earth this is going to work from the A’s perspective. Wolff and his fellow owners would be on the hook for close to $500 million in stadium construction costs, plus whatever money they’d have to slip under the table to get the Giants to give up their territorial rights to Santa Clara County that they got back when they were trying to move there in the Bob Lurie days. Figure that the total cost, construction debt plus indemnification, would be around $50 million a year. That’s just about exactly the difference between the revenue of the A’s and the Los Angeles Angels. Even upping their take by $40 million a year would require the A’s to surpass the Giants in revenues — in a smaller market, in a stadium seating only 32,000. And that’s just to break even — to afford, say, to keep players for more than four months, they’d need tens of millions more.
With that in mind, forgive me for remaining skeptical that even if Selig grants him permission to abscond to the South Bay, Wolff will be able to keep his pledge of building the nation’s first truly privately funded ballpark since Pac Bell Park. I don’t know what he has up his sleeve — whether it’s hidden subsidies like property-tax kickbacks or arm-twisting MLB into helping pay off the Giants in order to get the A’s off the league’s revenue-sharing payee list — but so long as the stadium price tag is half a billion dollars, that’s going to be a tough nut to crack.