Washington Nationals and Houston Astros Want $145 Million From Palm Beach Taxpayers (UPDATED)

Palm Beach County Commissioners will listen today to the pleas of a couple of fat-cat baseball club owners seeking $145 million in public funds to build a spring training facility in West Palm Beach.

See also: Houston Astros Owner Has Controversial Past, Courts Public Subsidies

What's in it to the tune of nine figures for local residents? To hear the owners, it's a cornucopia of benefits. Art Fuccillo, a smooth-talking flack for the Washington Nationals, told the Palm Beach Post the training site would mean "$100 million a year in economic growth" for the county.

But to the shame of the baseball moguls -- and that of officials who give them the time of day -- study after study, year after year, city by city, the research shows that public investment in the plutocrats' pockets is a raw deal for taxpayers.

And it's stadiums -- the object of the owners' desire today -- that are the deepest pit, overrunning cost estimates by $10 billion a year, nationwide, according to Harvard urban planning professor Judith Grant Long. In 2012, she told Bloomberg News:

The public is at a disadvantage in negotiating those deals with sports teams and leagues, which have a monopoly on the supply of franchises and opaque finances, Long writes. The total cost of sport facilities has received little attention from researchers in part "because most economic analyses demonstrate that sports facilities produce very few or no net new economic benefits relative to construction costs alone, and so, in this sense, more accurate cost estimates would only serve to reinforce a case already made."

Public officials shouldn't spend any more than necessary to secure the participation of the local team, she writes. Small cities tend to fare worse than larger ones, because they either have to offer more money to keep an existing franchise from moving to a larger market, or they have to put up more to compensate a team moving from a larger market.

Long concludes that, regardless of profit-sharing or rent, "public partners should avoid paying building costs."

"Land and infrastructure you help with," she said in a telephone interview. "The building? Let them go it alone."

It's not like the two teams that come a-begging today -- the Nationals and the Houston Astros -- are suffering any cash shortage. The Nationals had pretax earnings of $22.4 million last year; the Astros walked away with $55.9 million.

Washington Nationals and Houston Astros Want $145 Million From Palm Beach Taxpayers (UPDATED)
Photo by Keith Allison via Flickr cc

The owners ain't hurting either. Nationals owner Ted Lerner's family business is the largest private landowner in the Washington, D.C., area. He has an estimated net worth of $4.4 billion. Astros owner Jim Crane is a major player in energy services and has an estimated net worth of $2 billion. A few years ago, for a reported $25 million, he bought himself an historic Florida golf course (from H. Wayne Huizenga).

The $145 million of public funds the owners are hoping for today, that could go a long way to benefit the local economy without trickling down through the executive suites. The money is to come from the county's bed tax, so it could be used for local arts and culture, or beach enhancement. We don't need Lerner or Crane as middlemen for those kinds of investments -- which have multiplier effects as much as does sports.

(The teams' claim that the stadium's multiplier effect would result in a $100 million boost to the local economy comes courtesy of a report generated by HKS Sports and Entertainment, which is in the business of... building stadiums and other sports facilities.)

Here's an alternative plan for the baseball big shots: You put up the money and show us the results. Then we'll cut you in for a share of the taxes on the "$100 million a year" generated by your stadium. You're asking us to believe your projections; if they're so solid, put your money where your mouth is.

UPDATE: The team owners' request for $145 million in public funds was denied today on a 4-3 vote: Commissioners Steve Abrams, Mary Lou Berger, Paulette Burdick and Jess Santamaria against; Commissioners Priscilla Taylor, Hal Valeche and Shelley Vana for. The coffin lid is not shut, however, as the city agreed to continue negotiations with the teams and meet again on the matter Oct. 21.

Fire Ant -- an invasive species, tinged bright red, with an annoying, sometimes-fatal sting -- covers South Florida news and culture. Got feedback or a tip? Contact Fire.Ant@BrowardPalmBeach.com.

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