The recent Strong Towns’ series on Cobb County, Georgia touched upon many of the issues endemic to the American Post War development pattern and the Growth Ponzi Scheme, but the financing of a new stadium for the Atlanta Braves was mentioned repeatedly as emblematic and symptomatic of the mistakes communities fall into as they chase growth while falling further and further into the death spiral of debt described as the norm for the 3rd generation of suburban growth in the Curbside Chat.
I want to make some comparisons between the Sun Trust Park development and my own home town’s “Hail Mary, MegaProject, Silver Bullet”: the new MGM Springfield resort casino. My goal is to elicit responses from readers regarding these comparisons so as to flesh out whether, in truth, the general thumbs down for Mega Projects actually comes from the qualities, characteristics, and criticisms which in the first case the development fosters, or if the actual process is the reverse; there is an instinctual aversion to Silver Bullet projects and the rationales follow. I say that because in every instance the process, the funding, the fiscal impact, the location, the use of infrastructure, and the impacts on various segments of the community are reversed when comparing these two projects.
The Braves stadium process was, according to the posts on Strong Towns, rapid, undemocratic, and even secretive. The process for selecting a location and a developer for a casino in the western region of Massachusetts was first written, voted on, and approved by both houses of the Massachusetts legislature and signed by the governor. The mayor of Springfield had to opt in to the process on behalf of his constituents, the negotiated plan had to be approved by local voters, then the entire process was subject to an up or down statewide referendum.
Where the Atlanta Braves required that county government bond for hundreds of millions of dollars to build their stadium, MGM has committed, per the terms of its license, to pay to the city, surrounding cities and towns, and the state tens of millions of dollars yearly after having funded the construction of the entire $960 million dollar project privately.
While Sun Trust stadium was built in a suburban location and required not just new infrastructure, but infrastructure for its exclusive use paid for by Cobb County, MGM built its resort in the urban core of the region which had dozens of buildings lost to or damaged by an F-4 tornado just a few years earlier; there was infrastructure in the ground and underdeveloped land all around and what improvements, modernizations, and expansions were needed were funded by MGM and included upgrades to the surrounding area. MGM has also funded all new sidewalks and bicycle infrastructure throughout the downtown.
The debt burden of the new baseball park in Cobb County was blamed in part for the underfunding and/closure of parks and libraries, for cutbacks in police, and for a lack of support for public transit. MGM has taken over the maintenance of one existing park and, in partnership with the city, paid for improvements to two others. MGM is footing the bill for a free downtown “Loop” shuttle connecting to the city’s brand new intermodal transit station as well as committing a half a million dollars a year to the operations of Union Station. The city is using funds from MGM to expand police presence downtown and in the South End including two new substations and two 24 hour kiosks.
Not much was made of the overall design of Sun Trust Park in the series, but it is clear that the stadium does very little to connect to (or perhaps to create!) nearby neighborhoods. Conversely the MGM plan not only was designed to connect to all of the surrounding areas: the South End, Main Street, Court Square; by taking over the management of the Mass Mutual Center arena, Symphony Hall, and CityStage MGM formally expands its presence throughout the downtown. One writer urges Cobb County to see the potential of Marietta to create and expand a traditional, walkable area which could give Cobb County its own identity rather than just being a suburb of Atlanta. By New England standards Western Massachusetts has always been too far from either New York City or Boston to be considered a suburb of either; for good or for ill we have always had a separate identity, but having at the heart of the region an urban core which people of the entire region would embrace as a center was only a reality of yesteryear…until now.
To conclude, please allow me an analogy. If a certain teenager asks mom and dad for permission to attend a party and they reply: “No. We don’t want you at Billy’s house, we don’t think he’s a very good influence on you.” And the teen responds that not only is the party not at Billy’s house, but Billy isn’t invited and the parents then come up with a different reason to withhold permission…then it was never really about Billy. Maybe they’re still justified in their decision, but the Billy thing was just cover.
MGM is a Silver Bullet project if ever there was one, but I find it hard to find a single criticism of the Cobb County example which applies. Are all corporate enterprises from Trader Joe’s to Walmart extractive? Of course they are. Whether it’s Two Buck Chuck or Salad Shooters the point is to get the consumer’s money into the hand of investors while spending as little as possible in the local community to do so. Owners of Major League Baseball franchises and shareholders of MGM are no different. Is Strong Towns swearing off the corporate model entirely? We’ve got a handful headquartered here trying to extract as much as possible from other communities, it’d be pretty painful if we “unilaterally disarmed” if you take my meaning.
To sum up, two Mega Projects: The first done in secret, paid for by public money, in the suburbs, requiring new infrastructure, and having a negative impact on quality of life services. The other the result of a public process, privately funded, within the urban core, obligated to make payments to local government, renovating but not expanding the coverage of the infrastructure network, and funding quality of life services. Do the differences matter, or do you really just not trust your kid at a party?