Sunday, June 03, 2007

Dark Lady: when it comes to a stadium, follow the money

It’s subway reading, at best. Richard North Patterson’s 1999 mystery Dark Lady got mixed reviews and, frankly, doesn’t completely hang together. Though the title refers to prosecutor Stella Marz, and there’s a woman’s silhouette on the cover, the book is about a development deal, the construction of a baseball stadium (and more) in Steelton, a lightly fictionalized version of Cleveland.

And the lesson, as for Atlantic Yards watchers, is an old one: follow the money.

Steelton, like its model, is a deindustrialized city clawing its way back, with a split in political power between white ethnics and African-Americans. The Steelton 2000 bond deal was sold to voters as a plan based on a baseball stadium, “another Camden Yards or Jacobs Field,” for the Steelton Blues.

The white mayor, Tom Krajek, in a hard-fought race against a black prosecutor, has appealed to minorities by emphasizing that 30 percent of the contracts would go to minority businesses, as would 30 percent of the jobs. The team owner, Peter Hall, has taken on a minority partner, Larry Rockwell, a longtime star of the Blues.

The costs

That prosecutor, Arthor Bright, is the good government candidate, pointing out that it’s the baseball team’s owner who truly benefits.
So,” he asked them, “what are we talking about here?
“Two hundred seventy-five million dollars of your money to build a new ballpark for Mr. Hall.”
“Two hundred seventy-five million dollars for a stadium you can’t afford to take your kids to, crammed with luxury boxes that go for a hundred thousand dollars a year.”

(Emphases in original)

And Bright warns that repaying the bonds will cost taxpayers $450 million, part of a deal done in secret, with no competitive bidding, and millions of additional costs in infrastructure: new roads, sewers, utilities, and maintenance.

It sounds like an eerie echo of the "extraordinary infrastructure" loophole in the Atlantic Yards memorandum of understanding, which could mean that taxpayers pay much more than originally contemplated.

As for the lack of competitive bidding, consider the unwillingness of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to issue a request for proposals for its Vanderbilt Yard until 18 months after Atlantic Yards was announced. The luxury boxes are the raison d'etre of any new sports facility; the Barclays Center would have an unusual number of such corporate suites.

How it works

The novel contains a lot of potboiling until we meet an architect who designs stadiums but didn’t get to bid on the Steelton one. He explains to Marz how Hall and Krajek pinned down support by going beyond the usual arguments of “enhancing the downtown and maintaining a ‘big-league profile.’” They made sure all the people in on the deal were local and ensured a big role for local minorities.

They cooked up something better. If the project comes in under budget, half of that left over would go back to the city, half to the team owner. But there's room to do that, thanks to cost overruns. The architect suggests that the budget includes a $75 million cushion for waste, screw-ups, and hiring people with no experience.

The book careers through deals and deaths and details of the mall development beyond the stadium. There's organized crime and money laundering. The story is tough to summarize in a short space, but the message, as noted, is clear: follow the money.

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