Millions for Ilitch but not a penny for Detroit.

Sports Stadium Swindle

Aug 7, 2013 at 12:00 am

Back in the 1970s, we had a governor named William Milliken who understood that Detroit’s prosperity and Michigan’s prosperity were inextricably tied together — and, despite sneers he was the “ghetto governor,” Milliken successfully pushed the state legislature to help the city. And he was a Republican!

Today, Detroit is in much worse shape, but nobody currently in Lansing would dream of seriously proposing any financial help for the Motor City. Why? Mostly because any such proposal would be greeted with contempt by the majority Republicans — and would likely be unpopular with many Democrats.

We have been led to believe that Detroit is entirely responsible for its own poverty and debt. To be sure, Detroiters themselves have helped promote this idea — by electing criminals and idiots like Kwame Kilpatrick and Charles Pugh.

But nobody talks much about the abandonment of the city by those who used it and then moved to the suburbs. As former state treasurer Robert Kleine mentioned in last Sunday’s Detroit Free Press, the state got Detroit to reduce its tax rate a few years ago in return for a promise that revenue sharing wouldn’t be cut. Then, naturally, the state cut revenue sharing.

Detroit made Michigan the industrial powerhouse it was and, in some ways, still is. But those who used the city up and then moved on now expect it to go through bankruptcy, maybe lose what last remaining assets it has, and then start over without help, making it, somehow, led by whatever set of politicians Detroiters elect to represent them this year.

Incredibly, too many of us are cool with that. Too many of us — comfortable —suburbanites happily agree we don’t want the state wasting any of our tax dollars on those people.

Yet, what would you think if I were to suggest that the state pick one Detroiter, a guy who happens to be struggling along on his last $2.7 billion, and give him public money? Lots of money.

An estimated $284.5 million, to start. By the way, we aren’t giving him this dough to start a public works project, or to do anything that will actually help Detroiters, though the politicians are pretending it will. We will be coughing up this money so that Mike Ilitch can build a new hockey arena.

Oops, make that a $450 million “entertainment complex.” According to Crain’s Detroit Business, the public will pay almost three-fifths of the total costs. The Detroit Red Wings already have a downtown home, of course: Joe Louis Arena, which taxpayers paid to build for them not all that long ago, but now the Pizza Emperor wants a new one.

We are, however, invited — in return for some of our property tax revenues — to gaze at the pie in the sky they tell us this will bring. The Ilitches and their abettors are claiming “ancillary developments,” that are apt to spring up in the near-vicinity, including a 140,000-square-foot office and retail complex; a big hotel, other building renovations, a pedestrian bridge over the freeway, many parking structures, etc., etc.

Additionally, the Packard Motor Co. is expected to relaunch and begin making at least 100,000 new luxury vehicles a year, employing 30,000 Detroiters.

OK, I made up that last part, but I don’t expect you to believe it, and the people who want your money — and want to fool you — are telling you the same thing, only it’s not the Packard they’re touting.

Think I am just a cynical and crabby old man? You might want to go back and read about all the wonderful things that were supposed to happen when the taxpayers paid for Joe Louis, Comerica Park, Ford Field, etc., etc.

All those promises and predictions never happened then, either. Yes, I know some new condos have sprung up near Comerica. And I know the Hockeytown Café does a booming business … on those days there is a game.

Fans do pour downtown for hockey, baseball and football games; and some do go to bars and restaurants afterward, but most don’t. They just get in their cars and go home. People don’t sell their houses in Royal Oak and move downtown to be close to the stadiums.

University of Chicago economist Allan Sanderson put it best, a couple of years ago: “If you want to inject money into the local economy, it would be better to drop it from a helicopter than invest it into a new ballpark.”

There have been economic impact studies galore showing no real benefits to cities from building sports stadiums. Yet they still build them; and still they come, the politicians, that is, with the public’s checkbook in hand.

The National Post, a Canadian newspaper, took a look at Detroit’s plans to pour public money into a new arena, in a bankrupt city and ran its findings on the front page of the July 25 edition. The tone of the article made it clear they thought this was sort of nuts — because it is.

They included a particularly silly quote from Gov. Rick Snyder, who defended the project on the grounds that it could take Detroit “from a place where people might have had a negative impression to being a place that will be recognized across the world as a place of great value and a place to invest.”

Well, gol-lee, Gomer! If we had only known this before, Dee-troit could have built some new stadiums, and not have had to go bankrupt. That’s right, Goober … except, ah — we did.

What is stunning to me is that so few voices have been raised in protest. Oh, Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer groused, “It’s difficult to tell the residents of the city that this is more important than public safety or streetlights.”

Yet nobody paid much attention; she didn’t say it very loudly and she’ll be out of office in a year and a half anyway.

Don’t get me wrong. I want anything in Detroit that creates jobs. I believe in private sector initiatives, and pure socialism doesn’t work precisely because it crushes incentive.

But what I don’t understand are those free-market types who are so eager to oppose spending any money to help poor kids but are fine when government wants to spend taxpayer dollars to help a billionaire build a bigger playpen.

Hate unnecessary government spending? Good. Tell Mr. Ilitch he can afford to pay for his own arena.

When you say that, his backers splutter, “He might move the team.”

Fine: Call that bluff. Where would he take them? Moose Jaw? Tuscaloosa? Hockey teams have been failing in some towns and there is nowhere he can hope to draw the kind of revenue he can make here. But we are afraid to anger the rich.

So we will, in all probability, spend taxpayer dollars for a glittering new hockey palace, and the Ilitch family will get richer — and Detroit’s horrendous neighborhoods will continue to rot.

What’s more, the odds are that if you are younger than 50, and stay in Michigan, you may get to buy another one for them sometime down the road!

Primary Election Update:

As you might expect, it turned out exactly the way I knew it would. I’ll be back next week to analyze the results. 

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].