How Cincinnati got suckered into two stadium deals

A Stadium's Costly Legacy Throws Taxpayers for a Loss


Here in Hamilton County, where one in seven people lives beneath the poverty line and budget cuts have left gaps in the schools and sheriffs department, residents are bracing for more belt-tightening: rollback of a property-tax break promised as part of a 1996 plan to entice voters to pay for two new stadiums.

The tax hit is just the latest in a string of unforeseen consequences from what has turned into one of the worst professional sports deals ever struck by a local government—soaking up unprecedented tax dollars and county resources while returning little economic benefit.

With a combined estimated cost of $540 million, the stadiums—one for football's Bengals, the other for baseball's Reds—were touted by the teams and county officials as a way to generate cash and jobs. The Bengals, who had threatened to relocate if they didn't secure a new home, drove negotiations. And it is that deal—the more lucrative arrangement struck with the teams—that has fanned the county's current struggles.


At its completion in 2000, Paul Brown Stadium had soared over its $280 million budget—and the fiscal finger-pointing had already begun.

The county says the final cost was $454 million. The team's estimate, which doesn't include infrastructure work around the stadium, puts the tab at $350 million.

But according to research by Judith Grant Long, a Harvard University professor who studies stadium finance, the cost to the public was closer to $555 million once other expenditures, such as special elevated parking structures, are factored in. No other NFL stadium had ever received that much public financing.


On top of paying for the stadium, Hamilton County granted the Bengals generous lease terms. It agreed to pick up nearly all operating and capital improvement costs—and to foot the bill for high-tech bells and whistles that have yet to be invented, like a "holographic replay machine." No team had snared such concessions in addition to huge sums of public money, Journal research shows.

To help finance its stadiums, Hamilton County assumed more than $1 billion in debt by issuing its own bonds without any help from the surrounding counties or the state. As debt service ratchets up, officials expect debt payments to create a $30 million budget deficit by 2012.

"The Cincinnati deal combined taking on a gargantuan responsibility with setting new records for optimistic forecasting," says Roger Noll, a professor of economics at Stanford University who has written about the deal. "It takes both to put you in a deep hole, and that's a pretty deep hole."

The stadium's annual tab continues to escalate, according to the county's website. In 2008, the Bengals' stadium cost to taxpayers was $29.9 million, an amount equivalent to 11% of the county's general fund.

Last year, it rose to $34.6 million—a sum equal to 16.4% of the county budget.

Comment: A cautionary tale! And the teams suck too!

1 comment:

  1. Insanity. And they're going to be paying for stuff that doesn't exist yet? Did 12 year-olds put that part in?


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