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Saturday, July 20

Gapers Block

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Barack Obama should have known better. At last week's AFL-CIO Presidential debate, when asked if he supported the use of public funds for the construction of Soldier Field, he should have known better than to say that building the stadium promoted economic development in Chicago.

Obama should have known better because presumably he is smart enough to know that there exists broad consensus among economists that sports stadiums and big-ticket sporting events (like the Olympics) do not generally promote economic development, neighborhood uplift or create permanent high-quality jobs. Most economists also agree that governmental bodies rarely recoup the investment in public funds.

It's not as if this information was available only to those who know some secret password or to subscribers to the Journal of Obscure Economics. Obama could have ambled across the Midway from his office at the University of Chicago law school to talk to Allen Sanderson or fought traffic to Lake Forest College to cross-examine Rob Baade, both experts in the study of the economics of sports and stadiums. If Obama wanted a less academic treatment of the issue, he could have pointed his web browser to studies from Good Jobs First, the Heartland Institute or even columns from the Chicago Reader. (The Beechwood Reporter collected a number of these links in their live blog of the debate).

Perhaps Obama was confused by the anomaly of Wrigley Field and the vibrant, livable neighborhood around it. For every Wrigley, there are dozens of Shea Stadiums, Meadowlands or Metrodomes: massive piles of concrete surrounded by moats of grey parking lots. Almost all sport stadiums are part-time affairs, more often empty and dark than filled with screaming happy fans. And even when filled with fans, those fans rarely spend the kind of money outside the stadium that boosts local economies. The bulk of stadium jobs are part-time, temporary service jobs that generally do not provide a living wage, provide good opportunities for advancement, or stepping stones to better work elsewhere. Good evidence exists that stadium construction rarely creates new jobs.* Public subsidies for stadium construction are the worst kind of corporate welfare.

Beyond all the policy wonkery and academic debate about accounting and public expenditures, Mr. "community organizer from the South Side of Chicago" should have known better. Obama supposedly cut his political activist teeth working with a network of churches to overcome decades of economic divestment and political neglect, symbolized by the closing of the LVT steel plant on Chicago's Southeast Side. Public subsidies for stadium construction are part of the "cranes and condo" model of urban development that community organizers constantly struggle against. The cranes and condo model gauges a city's economic and social health by the number of large construction projects, condo conversions and filled downtown office space.

Community organizers know that the best way to gauge a city's health is to look at the life in its working and middle class neighborhoods. They know a city's health and vitality comes as much from the condition of the lowliest playlot in Woodlawn as it does from Millennium Park. They know that new economy jobs cleaning up after the high priests and priestesses of finance, whether it is in their offices or playgrounds are no substitute for the high quality, high wage jobs of the "old" economy. Stadium construction does little to help families in Little Village living in a park desert, those in Woodlawn living in a food desert or families in countless neighborhoods despairing over their children's low quality education.

Barack Obama should have known better. If his "new politics" are going to mean anything for those left behind or struggling by the new economy, he needs to refresh the lessons he learned as a community organizer. A new politics that trades one set of downtown elites with kinder, gentler, prettier ones is nothing short of betrayal.

* Miller, P.A (2002). "The Economic Impact of Sports Stadium Construction: The Case of the Construction Industry in St. Louis," Mo. Journal of Urban Affairs, 24(2)

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T / August 15, 2007 1:09 PM

Jacob Lesniewski writes, "Public subsidies for stadium construction are the worst kind of corporate welfare." People who speak in absolutes are, in most cases, absolutely wrong. Mr. Lesniewski does little to support his argrument other than to site examples of stadiums built many decades ago with little or no input from experts in the field and the communities they exist within. These are problems that have been corrected in many of the newer stadiums that have been built in the last decade or so.

Jacob / August 15, 2007 1:40 PM

Thanks for the comments. I encourage you to follow the links on the Beechwood Reporter page. There is generally little that economists agree on, except for the fact that sports stadiums aren't worth the public subsidy.
Also check out Rob Baade's work

Thanks for reading!

Ramsin / August 15, 2007 5:12 PM

You guys call me a "socialist pig" last week, and the best Jacob gets is a little polite disagreement?

You're making me look bad. Give this man the business!

(Great article Jacob!)

anon / August 15, 2007 11:35 PM

Where the hell is Richard these days? I want him to know that the picture he chose for his little profile in the "About Us" section amused the hell out of me.

Bring back Richard!

irishpirate / August 16, 2007 7:34 AM


you want us to give him the business.


take your whiny, left of center, New York ass back to the east coast and stay off our websites.

How's that?

As for his comments about stadiums some are undoubtedly true.

However, quite a few people make a decent part time income working at the various stadiums and events. I don't think they would appreciate losing those incomes.

There is also the "prestige" factor at play. Major cities crave bit time sports teams. There are issues that can't be quantified.

Somebody is watching Monday Night Football on TV and see da Bears playing some crappy New York team. They see the skyline and the beauty of Chicago and say "Hey, Martha let's drive 300 miles to Chicago next weekend and visit some museums with the grandkids.

An Olympics would generate tourism dollars for years after the event.

Of course I don't live in the la dee da world of the University of Chicago and Hyde Park. So what do I know?


Jacob / August 16, 2007 8:27 AM

I'm glad I provoked the irish pirate.

You probably know a lot more than 85% of the people living in ladeda land (present company not included)
I think you've got to look at what the cost of prestige is. If "prestige" comes at the cost of signficant displacement of residents (the case of the Olympics) or shifting of public money away from other, more important priorities, than it may not be worth it.
Take it from someone who grew up having a sore neck from trying to see the whole field from the cheap seats at Shea Stadium: I have nothing against stadium construction. I'm just sad that Mr. New Politics is spouting nonsense about stadiums and economic development.

Take that you North Side punk

Chef / August 16, 2007 1:51 PM

Some of the publicly funded stadium projects do exactly what you are writing about, Jacob. Granted, the stadiums you brought up seem a little dated. I don’t know if you knew this, but stadiums have been built since the 1960’s. Your points seem more appropriate for a column written about 15 years ago.

I have been to dozens of football stadiums, baseball stadiums and college football stadiums; I would say that Wrigley field is not an anomaly.

The newer stadiums do create an atmosphere around their area. Detroit was a dump with the old stadium (with all due respect)…the new stadiums in Detroit are so much fun in and around. Same thing with Milwaukee, Cincy, Baltimore, Colorado, Seattle, Pittsburgh…just to name a few.

You said, “And even when filled with fans, those fans rarely spend the kind of money outside the stadium that boosts local economies.”

I disagree. Not everything in life revolves around New York and Shea Stadium…if no money is spent outside of Shea Stadium; it seems odd you apply that to the whole nation. But these other cities with newer parks allow fans to hang outside of the stadium and contribute to restaurants, bars, hotels, stores, cabs, trains, airlines…do you not consider these entities the local economy?

You said, “The bulk of stadium jobs are part-time, temporary service jobs that generally do not provide a living wage, provide good opportunities for advancement, or stepping stones to better work elsewhere.”

Now, here is where your “socialist pig” name tag gets put right on your chest. Since when are these jobs supposed to be “bread-winner” jobs? They are supposed to be part-time jobs. I worked as a hot-dog/beer vendor in Chicago and I noticed that we worked all year long. Cubs, Sox, Black Hawks and Bulls. The company you actually work for here in Chicago will even shuttle you to and from the games to specific locations. It’s a good job…a good “unskilled” job.

Should every single job the gov’t creates be a full time, full benefit, salaried, pensioned career?

I quote Judge Smails, “Well, the world needs ditch diggers, too!”

You said, “Community organizers know that the best way to gauge a city's health is to look at the life in its working and middle class neighborhoods.”

Let’s also gauge a city’s health by the sophistication of the society. I’m not naïve enough not to notice the dynamic change going on in our socio-economic classes…but it is awfully short sighted to gauge a city based on one item. Are we all going to stand up for the saddle maker too? That industry went bankrupt due to the automobile. Are we going gauge the city’s health based that lone industry? Of course not, you gauge a city by many factors.

Obama was doing what he does best…telling people what they want to hear. He uses a tone that is easily digestible. If you look beyond Obama’s boyish charm and his Kennedy-like way of public speaking, he is as FOS as the next guy. I’m still voting for him, though.

Welcome, Jacob. Bears rule.

Steve / August 16, 2007 2:00 PM

Dennis Kucinich actually gave the best reply to this question with his quip after Obama muffed the punt: once a municipality is being asked to pony up hundreds of millions of dollars to build a stadium for a privately owned sports team, it might as well just buy the team!

Jacob / August 16, 2007 3:27 PM

Hmmm.. maybe I shouldn't have said I was from NY...

Chef, you're not incorrect to note that some newer stadiums have bars and the like around them. But the point remains that the economic activity, even around a baseball stadium (which usually have the most usage of any sports stadium) is part time.

And yes, the world needs ditch diggers. Is it too much to ask that the they make a decent wage, too?

The overall "cost-benefit" of publically subisized (spelling, sorry) stadiums, even the newer ones, remains in the loss column.

oh, and Irish Pirate, I'm pretty sure Hellen Schiller disagrees with me...

Clint / August 16, 2007 4:01 PM

I'm not going to argue the economic point you make, although I do think there are economic benefits you're not taking into account. On the politics of the issue, though, I think Obama, as an Illinois senator with thousands of consituents filling that stadium on fall Sundays, answered the question exactly right. Obama knows that Soldier Field is much more than a construction project or an economic venture or a job generator. Soldier Field is a source of joy for millions of doctors and lawyers and ditch diggers. It's a place where people can go, either in person or via television, to escape questions of economics and anything else. It's a nationally-recognized place where people play, both on the field and in the stands.

If Obama answers the question solely with economic factors, he misses the point, and his constituents--many of whom are blue-collar Bears fans--brand him a political hack egg head. If he takes into account the whole picture, though, then he seems like a loyal Bears fan, and the people of the city love him for it.

Clint / August 16, 2007 4:11 PM

Oh, and yeah, you probably shouldn't have said you were from New York, because too many people will discount whatever you say with gross generalizations and stereotypes that have no basis in reality.

Of course, a New Yorker like you just can't go without mentioning that you think you're the center of the world, can you?


Chef / August 16, 2007 4:31 PM

I love reading about the days of Walter O’Malley owning the Brooklyn Dodgers telling the city gov’t, “I want to build own my own stadium. I want to pay taxes on my own stadium."

To finish the tale, the city stalled and O'Malley went west to L.A.

irishpirate / August 16, 2007 5:05 PM

Belch, me some peanuts and cracker jack.......I don't care if I ever come back.....cause it's root root root.....

By the way look up the name of the 46th Alderbeast Ward you mentioned. See I misstypes. Or is that misstypes. Or Miss typed.

You spelled her name wrong. She would likely agree with you. If she could I suspect she would tear down Wrigley and turn it into a giant SRO with cheap booze and drug dealers.

Now that I think about it except for the cheap booze it is pretty much that already.

anon / August 16, 2007 5:56 PM

Why do I get the feeling that Jacob isn't a real person?

Jacob / August 16, 2007 6:48 PM

I think you hit the reason why 9/10 stadiums get approved. They are about entertainment, not economic development. I hate to keep banging on this drum, but the question becomes how much a city/state should be willing to pony up for entertainment, especially when there are other priorities that remain underfunded.
To your point about Obama: Kucinich (is that how you spell it) recieved thunderous applause (as mentioned above by Steve) for his response. His answer to this question, plus his mind-numbing endorsement of Dorothy Tillman's re-election have prevented me from filming a youtube video about him. I mean, even Mitt "I chain my dog to the car roof" Romney knows better.

Jack / August 16, 2007 6:50 PM

Oh, and clint, NY as the center of the world is why I moved away in 1995.

Jacob / August 16, 2007 6:50 PM

Oh, and clint, NY as the center of the world is why I moved away in 1995.

Andrew / August 17, 2007 9:09 AM

Anon, I assure you that Jacob is a real person. I've met him.

Ramsin / August 17, 2007 12:00 PM


you're getting awful cute with your comments here.

Jacob is not only real, but look at that punim!

irishpirate / August 17, 2007 2:07 PM


I had to look that up.

Sounded dirty.

We don't all understand Yiddish so why not speak chicagoese so we can all understand without having to resort to urban dictionary.

Ramsin / August 17, 2007 2:33 PM

"speak Chicagoese"? Why don't you go tell some of the city's hundreds of thousands of Jews that common Yiddish slang doesn't fit IrishPirate's definition of Chicagoese.

Let me guess: something you specifically would understand?

There's a whole city out there buddy, outside of Uptown.

Jacob / August 17, 2007 2:43 PM

Ramsin and Andrew: thanks for the backup. Google is a scary thing..

Irishpirate: who lives in ladeda land?

irishpirate / August 17, 2007 5:19 PM


I am familiar with the Yiddish term for "dick". I think in my Chicagoese/Yiddish dictionary it is called "putz" with the synonym "ramsin".

Second, this cities hundreds of thousands of Jews largely left and moved. Check some census data.

Hint: Buffalo Grove. Old Hint: No longer really applicable Skokie.

Andrew / August 19, 2007 3:52 PM

I nearly ran into a couple Orthodox Jews as I pulled out of my alley in West Rogers Park yesterday. They haven't all left, irishpirate. (And Buffalo Grove is a new hint? How old are you?)

irishpirate / August 19, 2007 5:00 PM

I remember my cousin and her Jewish hubby talking about how all their Jewish friends wanted to move to Buffalo Grove..........circa 1977.

Be more careful while driving.

As for "they haven't all left"no they haven't. But like many ethnic groups, including the pasty faced Irish, the suburbs beckoned.

MIKE de FLYNN / August 20, 2007 6:24 PM

Yo man! Way cool, a little bit too far right for me. But right on, wright on, write on! Who do Obama think he be? Power to the Peoples.

Be groving!

Mikie De


About the Author(s)

Jacob Lesniewski is a transplanted New Yorker and a graduate student at the University of Chicago. While he loves Chicago, his biggest fear is that his daughters will become Bulls fans.

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