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The latest incarnation of Busch Stadium (#3, if you’re scoring at home)
opened this spring, and it’s been a reasonable success as these things go:
at a shade under
43,000 fans a game
, the Cards have filled 90 percent of capacity,
though they’re actually selling slightly
fewer tickets than last year
. They’re higher-priced ducats, though, so
presumably Bill DeWitt and company are feeling good about being able to repay
the $16 million a year they took on in agreeing to shoulder the bulk of
construction costs for their team’s new home.

But for the public that fronted the other
third of the stadium money
, this stadium, as the phrase goes, was to
be more than just a stadium. Part of the draw that led Missouri
legislators to approve public money for the project (St. Louis residents
actually tried
to vote down the funds
, but were ruled to have waited until after play
had resumed to file their appeal) was the Ballpark Village that the Cards
promised to build on the site of the former Busch Stadium: shops,
restaurants, condos, all the trimmings that are, according to legend,
supposed to suddenly bloom once a stadium is installed, boosting your city’s
tax base, and revitalizing your dusty downtown.

As the Cards’
website
exults:

Construction of the New Ballpark will lead to the emergence of
a fresh urban neighborhood–Ballpark Village–whose vitality will be
drawn from the adjacent presence of major league baseball. In turn,
Ballpark Village will enrich the game-day experience for millions of
Cardinals fans and set-in-motion the fulfillment of downtown’s potential
for millions more. … The
Cardinals will be responsible
for completing the ballpark and the
entire ballpark village development including parking; residential units;
office space; street level commercial and retail space; a baseball museum;
and a major entertainment attraction such as a world-class
aquarium.

Well, not exactly. As reported in Tuesday’s St. Louis
Post-Dispatch, it turns out that the Cards are now balking at moving ahead with the Ballpark Village unless they’re granted
sales-tax and property-tax breaks
that could be worth upwards of $100
million.

Not that anyone should be surprised by this. Baseball teams have a long
tradition of going back to the public till for more money once the shovels
are in the ground–my personal favorite being the Seattle Mariners’
ultimately unsuccessful claim that while they’d agreed to cover “cost
overruns,” Safeco Field’s soaring price tag was due to “unanticipated
capital expenditures,” which were, of course, completely different.

The new Busch, though, was supposed to break the old soak-the-taxpayers
mold. Aside from the Giants’ Name-of-California-Phone-Company-Here Park,
it was the first baseball stadium since Dodger Stadium in 1962 to be more than
half paid for with private funds. Future baseball historians will likely
look back on Busch III as the first stadium of the Revenue-Sharing
Deduction Era: Once MLB started allowing teams to recoup
40 percent of their stadium costs through reduced revenue-sharing
,
Cards execs suddenly dropped their insistence that the public pay for the
bulk of stadium construction, to be followed soon thereafter by the
Yankees and Mets.

Great, right? Except that, as we’ve seen, stadium subsidy demands haven’t
gone away–they’ve just shifted to items that are off the revenue-sharing
books. For the Yankees, it was free land, and getting rid of the four-percent-of-ticket-sales
rent payments
they would have had to make to the city under their
pre-2002-CBA stadium plan. For the Cards, it was such items as a $45
million loan from the county, which can be “repaid” after 30 years by
simply turning over title to the stadium, leading the late Doug Pappas to
observe at the time, “Given the likely value of a 30-year-old stadium
whose sole tenant will almost certainly be demanding a new facility, I
hope those legislators aren’t expecting a check… .” Hidden subsidies like
these are just as much a subsidy as a pile of stadium cash, but with two
big benefits to team owners: since they’re harder to understand, they’re
less likely to push voters’ outrage buttons; and they go entirely to boost
your team’s bottom line, while any money you spend can be devoted to
categories that get that 40-cents-on-the-dollar revenue-sharing discount.

Which is why word of the Cardinals’ latest tax-break demands should be
such worrisome news not just to Missourians, but to baseball fans all
over. Ballpark villages are part of the stadium proposals currently being
floated for the A’s (in Fremont) and the Marlins (in Hialeah). If the
“industry standard” becomes that not only the stadium but the condos
beyond the outfield wall should be eligible for hundreds of millions in
tax breaks, it’s going to be Katy, bar the treasury door.

I suppose one can hope that legislators will read the fine print before
signing onto more of these deals, and make sure that teams actually commit
to the entire project before any public money–tax breaks or otherwise–
is handed over. In baseball, there’s
always hope
.