The city of Arlington is holding a press conference today to announce plans for a new stadium for the Texas Rangers. The plan reportedly calls for $450 million in direct public subsidies, to say nothing of property tax breaks, operating costs, and infrastructure improvements. The Rangers' current home, completed in 1994, was built with the help over $200 million in taxpayer subsidies. Now the Rangers will be holding out their hands again, for more than double that amount.
Why? Because it is hot in Texas.
The main draw of the new stadium is a retractable roof that allows the stadium to be climate-controlled during hot Texas summer days, something fans were immediately critical of with the current stadium. But the reason the Ballpark in Arlington, as it used to be called, wasn't built with a roof in the first place encapsulates all the cronyism and corporate welfare endemic to America's stadium boom.
The Center for Public Integrity detailed how a new stadium played a big role in George W. Bush flipping the Rangers for a hefty personal profit. In the late 1980s, Bush bought into 1.8 percent of the Rangers, along with some of his oil buddies,using his father's relationship with the previous owner to seal the deal. His partners gave him an extra 10 percent because of his last name. Literally: "He had a well-known name, and that created interest in the franchise," Tom Schieffer, the Rangers' former president, said in 1999.
Bush used that last name to get local politicians on his side for a new stadium and land grab, all at the public's expense. Thanks in part to a $150,000 advertising campaign paid for by tax dollars to persuade voters to pay for a stadium with more tax dollars, in 1991 Arlington voted by a two-to-one margin to approve a sales tax hike to provide over $250 million toward the ballpark. The owners were supposed to chip in $50 million, but they mostly paid for that through a ticket surcharge. The team got a sweetheart lease to boot.
But Bush & Friends weren't done yet. As the Center for Public Integrity reported, the owners got to hand-pick land around the stadium they wanted to acquire. They would set their own price, which, unsurprisingly, was often well below market value. If the landowners refused, a made-up puppet entity essentially controlled by the Rangers ownership group, the Arlington Sports Facilities Development Authority, could use eminent domain to seize the property.
If that last paragraph sounds unbelievable, well, it is a thing that happened. Some of the local landowners sued over this and the courts sided with them to the tune of $11 million. But the Rangers owners, including Bush, didn't have to pay it. They fought and fought until they sold the team—and all the land they had seized, of course—to a new owner, Tom Hicks, who bought the team for $250 million (who also fought and fought the suit; it was eventually settled in 2013 for an undisclosed amount). This all worked out pretty well for Dubya. Bush got $14.9 million when the team was sold—a 25-fold return on his original investment of $606,302, thanks almost entirely to Arlington taxpayers.
Now that the Rangers are asking for retractable-roof money, the story behind the Ballpark in Arlington is especially relevant. When the stadium was being planned, the party line at the time was that retractable roof technology was not affordable or desirable. There's some truth to that: back then the only retractable roof stadium in North America was the Skydome in Toronto. The technology, however, was about to take off, and the Seattle Mariners, the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Houston Texans, the Houston Astros, and the Milwaukee Brewers all built retractable-roof stadiums within a decade of the Ballpark in Arlington's debut. If Bush and the ownership group hadn't been so eager to get a stadium, any stadium, as long as it was paid for by someone else so they could flip the franchise and the land, the Rangers wouldn't have a sorry excuse for a new stadium now.
And, yes, "it is hot in Texas" is a sorry excuse for a $250 million public subsidy towards a new stadium. As VICE Sports contributor Neil deMause pointed out on his website, it's not clear the heat affects attendance all that much. The Rangers have a higher attendance than every climate-controlled team except the Blue Jays. The most reliable predictor of attendance is a team's previous season win total, not the temperature inside the stadium.
And what of all that land the Rangers used the government to seize for their own private profit? Who knows. Hicks flipped the team for more than double what he paid for it in 2010, again, partly because of the land's value. Now the new owners are using the old ownership group's mistakes to leverage a new stadium—and the accompanying team valuation increase—for their own personal profit. It's the same old bullshit all over again.
Arlington and the Rangers are selling this $450 million sales tax because it is not a "new tax," technically speaking: it already exists to pay off Cowboys Stadium. The perverse argument here is that the city of Arlington is paying off their $325 million portion of Cowboys Stadium faster than they expected, so why not build another stadium that they'll spend even longer paying off? Why the fuck not?
I'll tell you why the fuck not: because $450 million over the length of a 20-year bond is roughly $60 per year per Arlington citizen, without factoring interest. All the arguments about economic impact and job creation are so incredibly dumb when you realize you're talking about $60 per person per year and enough money to fund their annual street maintenance budget. Don't give it to one of the several hundred people on this planet who need the money the least.
The good news here is that it's not too late. There will, by law, be a vote on this tax. People of Arlington, I beg you, don't sign an agreement to pay millions of dollars a year to billionaires when the inevitable global recession sprung on by climate change and the collapsing tech bubble and another housing crisis because there's always another housing crisis will make you wish you had that money. The good times don't last forever. Don't do this.