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Sports stadiums lose ground as boon for cities

Stadiums and professional sports lost more than high-profile elections last month. They lost their claim as sure-fire economic-development engines.

In Seattle, voters rejected building a new arena for the Supersonics of the National Basketball Association, which had been sold by Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz to an Oklahoma City partnership. The new owners are making noises about moving the team when its contract at Key Arena runs out at the end of 2010.

"Go," said voters, responding to a campaign by the delightfully named anti-arena group Citizens for More Important Things.

In Sacramento, 8 of 10 voters said no to a plan that would have raised sales taxes to finance a new arena for the NBA Kings. It didn't help the campaign that the team owners refused to commit to playing at the arena if it was built.

Seattle doesn't need the Sonics. It's one of the world's most livable cities, and many residents want a "lesser Seattle." Fast-growing cities such as Phoenix or Las Vegas are anathema.

Lucky for them, Seattle is also highly competitive and prosperous. Its growth comes in measurements that benefit the people already there, such as venture capital, research dollars, educational quality and philanthropy. Downtown Seattle is already vibrant and will do just fine if the Sonics leave.

Downtown Sacramento needs more revitalization. But it won't happen just by building an arena, especially for owners without a civic bone in their bodies.

It wasn't supposed to turn out this way. When team owners started agitating for new, taxpayer-financed facilities in the 1990s, they often couched it with projects meant to turn around struggling center cities. There was a stick, too: the threat that the team would leave if its demands weren't met, a trend partly foreshadowed years before by the football Cardinals' angry departure from St. Louis.

It seemed to work in places such as Denver, where Coors Field became the centerpiece of the reclamation of what had been the city's skid row. Now downtown Denver is booming, and all four of its big league teams play downtown.

No growth guarantee

Phoenix's experience was quite different. Although a new ballpark and basketball arena bring thousands downtown, the center city is still badly lagging behind its peers. The development enjoyed around Coors Field hasn't happened. Many nights the streets are devoid of people.

In Los Angeles, neighborhoods around Staples Center have only recently begun to hint at a major turnaround. And it is driven more by big development dollars in condo and office projects, combined with more demand for downtown living, than the arena itself.

The lesson seems to be that stadiums and arenas are wonderful assets, but they have a wider benefit only when other positive forces are at work. Alone, they can't solve deeply entrenched pathologies in a place. And the venues risk losing any appeal if owners will go shopping for a new taxpayer deal at the first opportunity.

The old stadium game isn't entirely dead. Minneapolis is building a new ballpark for the Twins, after years of resistance, and the NFL Vikings may eventually get a new home, too. But now there's a new game: As cities have wised up, the owners are seducing gullible suburbs.

Glendale, Ariz., may become a national template, as Bay Area suburbs are wooing the San Francisco 49ers and the Oakland A's. A suburban county was courted and dumped, at least for now, by the Vikings. In all these cases, big suburban development projects are being promised along with the arenas.

Unfortunately, these stadiums only worsen sprawl and congestion. They're usually removed from mass transit. Quiet neighborhoods are quiet no longer.

The promise of stadiums didn't work out. That's what happens when feral greed wins.