Cities keep falling into stadium trap

East Oakland extends roughly from Fruitvale Station on the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) line to the Oakland Coliseum Station. This is a light industrial, Hispanic and Black neighborhood filled with auto repair shops and warehouses like the Ghost Ship warehouse that burned down Dec. 2, claiming dozens of lives. The 2013 movie Fruitvale Station was about the 2009 shooting death of an unarmed black man by a BART transit cop.

This is the neighborhood that contains the Oakland Coliseum, home of the Oakland A’s baseball team and the Oakland Raiders NFL franchise. The NBA Warriors also play in their own stadium in the neighborhood.

Both the A’s and the Raiders want out of East Oakland. The A’s want to move to a more upscale facility near Jack London Square. The Raiders want to move to Las Vegas.

In October, the Nevada Legislature met in special session and approved a 750 million room tax increase for a new stadium to lure the Raiders to Las Vegas. The ball is now in the hands of Oakland politicians to keep their beloved Raiders home.

Oakland has already been burned by the Davis family—owners of the Raiders—and the NFL. In 1995, they welcomed the team back to Oakland from Los Angeles where the pirate franchise had docked after deserting their rabid fans 13 years earlier.

Oakland gave them $190 million in bonds that have still not been paid off. After the construction was finished, the promised economic vibrancy that was supposed to happen in the neighborhood did not materialize. Most fans go to the games and buy from the vendors in the stadium. Few linger in the bleak neighborhood surrounding the stadium. East Oakland is still poor, and the city is, as well—from the debt overhang.

On Oct. 10, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf chastised the Nevada Legislature for its proposed subsidy. She spoke from experience that these professional sports deals rarely work out well for local governments. Nevertheless, Oakland is prepared to offer the team up to $200 million in infrastructure improvements and a favorable lease for a retail center to be developed by former Raider Ronnie Lott.

The Raiders are playing well, and currently are the number one seed in the AFC, and will almost certainly make the playoffs for the first time since 2002. Many in Oakland still want the team to stay. But getting the new subsidy enacted will be difficult to accomplish before the NFL votes on the Las Vegas move in January. There are just too many bad memories of the promises that were made to the city by the Davis family.

The Fruitvale neighborhood could use an economic transfusion. Oakland’s own experience, and that of numerous other cities like St. Louis, whose Rams just left it holding the bag for massive debt with their move to Los Angeles, shows that subsidizing billionaire sports owners is no way to accomplish that.

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