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A modest proposal: Let Orange County taxpayers be investors in soccer

Commissioner Pete Clarke’s idea could revolutionize sports stadium funding nationwide – but it probably won’t

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Pete Clarke has an idea – a damned good one. It’s such a good idea, in fact, that the low-key Orange County commissioner, elected just last November, has become something of a cause célèbre in sports-business circles lately. His idea, codified in a two-page, grammatically challenged memo he dashed off on Aug. 19, is this: If Orange County is going to contribute $20 million to a new downtown soccer stadium, shouldn’t it expect something in return – namely, a stake in the Orlando City Soccer Club?

This was, in Deadspin writer Barry Petchesky’s words, “the best idea for stadium financing we’ve ever heard.” Fox & Friends, on which Clarke appeared for a three-minute interview, called it “radical.” Neil deMause, the well-regarded author of the book (and blog of the same name) Field of Schemes, said it “looks like a great idea.”

Clarke’s logic goes something like this: As this column has previously pointed out (“Stadiums. Don’t. Work,” Aug. 15), the evidence overwhelmingly indicates that taxpayer-subsidized sports stadiums have a minimal (or even negative) impact on local income and employment. That’s why so many economists oppose them.

In Central Florida, we’ve watched the Orlando Magic’s value increase by some $437 million over the last two decades, even as taxpayers have subsidized two arenas at a cost of half a billion dollars. And yet county taxpayers have little, if anything, to show for it. “I do not want another example of the county expending millions of dollars and watching from the sidelines as our investment climbs in value without the prospect of taxpayers benefitting,” Clarke wrote.

So this time around, he thinks the county should be cut in on naming rights, concessions and other revenue Orlando City generates from the stadium. If and when the team is sold, the county should get a share of the profit. The county’s contribution becomes less a subsidy than an investment. Taxpayers are thus treated like investors, which means they get a return on their investment.

Sounds perfectly logical and fair, right? But this being Orlando, Clarke faces an uphill climb. At last week’s Orlando City Council workshop on the downtown venues, amid the glad-handing and laudatory backslapping, no one mentioned Clarke’s proposal, and so far only one other county commissioner, Ted Edwards, has publicly expressed interest.

The national attention has little to do with Orlando or its soccer team or even this particular stadium. Indeed, Orlando City’s request is a pittance compared to what the county has already granted the Magic and the Citrus Bowl for their venues. Rather, it’s because it’s time somebody, somewhere said enough. You see this same story in cities all over the country, in Indianapolis and Minneapolis and Washington, D.C., and Sacramento and Glendale, Ariz., and so many other places: Local leaders spend billions catering to the whims of team owners, blinded by glossy economic-impact studies that promise the moon and the stars. All they get in return is a mountain of debt.

In Florida, the Miami Heat, Tampa Bay Rays and Miami Dolphins are demanding either new or renovated facilities on the taxpayers’ dime. The Magic and Miami Marlins already got theirs. The Jacksonville Jaguars recently convinced their city council to shell out $43 million for new scoreboards. You see, it’s not really about Orlando City. I have nothing against the team or its owners or the sport of soccer. But if these teams want to talk about partnerships, then they should actually make us partners. They owe at least that modicum of respect.

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