OK, you can say it: “No more about the Shockoe Bottom ballpark!”
Most of the ongoing debate about the proposed $318 million ballpark-anchored development in Shockoe Bottom has centered on the best place to put a new baseball stadium. But it's not about the ballpark. It's about opportunity cost. It's about resource management, public goods and democracy.
Have you thought about opportunity cost and the ballpark? Let's define the term just in case. According to the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics, “When economists refer to the ‘opportunity cost’ of a resource, they mean the value of the next-highest-valued alternative use of that resource.”
When did subsidizing a ballpark become the highest valued use of our taxpayer dollars? Why is city money constantly siphoned off to private enterprise? Why should taxpayers have to pay for someone else's entertainment — whether it's baseball, the opera, or a new convention center? And yes, make no mistake: The ballpark plan, as proposed, will be financed with city and state tax dollars. Even if you buy the developers' claim that the city won't be asked to back the $70 million bond issue — i.e., the free ballpark — the proposed stadium will certainly be paid off with city and state tax dollars for the next 30 years. We can dicker over whether it's new revenue or not, but there's one point that cannot be refuted: The project works only if the city allows the developers to collect city tax dollars to pay for their new ballpark.
If you support the city financing a new baseball stadium, fine. But what gives you the right to make me pay for it? Where are my free skybox tickets so that I can sell them off and get a return on my investment?
Why should private ballparks get money that could be used for other, more important public goods? When public money goes to private interests — that is our opportunity cost.
Public goods are real parks where everyone can play ball until sundown, or public libraries and public utilities that are available for everybody's use. And yes, they're subsidized, sometimes much less so. Why is our city government spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to study the ballpark proposal when it's cutting funds for Humphrey Calder, Maymont Park and city libraries? Why should our public officials build their election campaigns by reducing property taxes — causing millions of dollars in lost city tax revenue needed for vital public services?
For years, I've cringed every time I hear the term private-public partnership, because I know that the public is about to be screwed by private interests. For decades, private businesses have spun the story about how much better they manage public money than bloated government bureaucracies. Then they make off with our money just like Bernie Madoff did with his Ponzi scheme and personal relationship with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Questioning those private interests can be hazardous. Those who don't go along are vilified, labeled conspiracy theorists or left-wing liberals.
Recently, my husband went without me to a public presentation on the Shockoe Bottom ballpark proposal. He likes sports. He describes himself as “on the fence” about the ballpark — he maintains that if the money figures worked, it might be worth supporting. I told him to ask for my baseball tickets while I went to church and talked to someone who might listen to me. But, surprise, surprise, when he asked a question about the financing — he's a math teacher — he was treated like a pariah. He was asked, “Who are you to keep a fan from attending a ballgame?” Is baseball a constitutional right? In the end he was accused of calling stadium supporters liars.
According to whistleblower Harry Markopolos, hundreds of people on Wall Street knew that Madoff's figures just didn't add up. Yet Markopolos was the only squealer — and it took him 10 years to get anyone, even our taxpayer-supported government agency, the SEC, to listen to him.
So why is our society so set on accepting the status quo? Why can't we get passionate in public without losing our listeners when we look angry? Even if we're furious because someone's paving over our slave ancestors' graves.
But back to opportunity cost. If the city would promise not to commit my money to private projects that benefit a few, I'm willing to give back my two cents in reduced property taxes. Take the money back and invest in parks and libraries. And as for the baseball stadium — or any other private enterprise that intends to charge me entry fees when I've helped pay for it — before you ask me to bond you out, give me and everyone in Richmond season tickets. S
Richmonder Caroline Cox is a former associate at the Richmond Public Library.
Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.