Public funding pushback looms over Rams' stadium plans

Dilip Vishwanat

We don't know much about the St. Louis Rams and their future stadium plans yet, but we do know that there could be a spirited debate over how to pay for it.

St. Louis and the entire state of Missouri is about to get a long lesson in stadium politics, courtesy of the St. Louis Rams and the city's Convention and Visitors Commission. You can find any number of takes assuming to have answers, from scary articles about the team packing up for the coast to the more naive belief that Stan Kroenke only wants what's best for the city and state. Believe whatever you want, but you'll have to take it on faith, because we really just don't know much about what's going to happen with the team and where it will be playing games in 2015 and beyond.

What we do know is the Rams have a couple options. They can find a way to fix up the Dome in a way consistent with the $700 million plan blessed by arbitrators. Or, they can find a new home somewhere inside the city, in the suburbs or anywhere else between here and French-controlled Mali, though the later is a bit of a stretch.

Precedent tells us that either one of those projects is going to require public money. The CVC, city and state are bound to keep the taxpayer subsidy its current level, $24 million per year. Recent, NFL stadium building trends, especially in smaller markets like St. Louis, have all called for or received a larger public fiscal commitment.

In Minnesota, the state and municipality is kicking in more than half the cost for a new $975 million dome. The list goes on and on. Every stadium, even the privately funded ones, get some kind of public infusion of money, even in the form of infrastructure accommodations or tax breaks.

What kind of public fiscal ask would the Rams want to stay in St. Louis? NOBODY KNOWS. It could be a little, it could be a lot. The plan for the Dome submitted to the CVC did not include a financial breakdown, just an overall estimate provided by the CVC itself.

Whatever taxpayer revenue the Rams do end up seeking, it comes at a time when governments are pushing back on stadium demands. The Atlanta Falcons upped their commitment to $800 million of a $1 billion stadium at the urging of the Governor.

Miami's mayor made a bolder move on Tuesday asking the NFL to guarantee a Super Bowl before committing public money to Stephen Ross' new stadium. The poor sap has a snowball's chance in, well, Miami, to get that commitment from the NFL. Multi-billion dollar businesses play by their own rules.

So why ask for a Super Bowl? Because stadiums are sold to taxpayers on the promise of delivering oodles and oodles of income for cities and states with events like the Super Bowl, etc. The reality of those stadiums delivering on their investment, according to most economists, is quite different, especially when the opportunity cost of spending public money on stadiums versus other public investments is factored into the equation.

Soon, we'll know more about the Rams' plans for a new home in St. Louis, be it a renovated Dome or a new place all together. At some point in there, we'll also get our first idea of just how this thing would be paid for. When that happens, we can start to have a real, meaningful conversation about the community's priorities and the future of professional football under the Arch.

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