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MiLB museum: Just who's footing the bill?

Both the N&O and Herald-Sun have good coverage today of Marc Basnight's visit to City Hall for the "town hall" meeting with the state Senate leader.

Reading their comprehensive coverage, my eyebrows went up a bit at the mention of looking for state subsidies for the proposed Minor League Baseball museum and "fan experience" center. Perhaps I hadn't been paying proper attention during earlier discussions of the project, but it was somehow my impression that MiLB was performing a feasibility and fund-raising study to determine their ability to pay for a museum.

Apparently, the plan is actually for MiLB to pay the "operating costs" of the facility, with the government picking up the tab for the land and construction costs.

This is a tough one for me. On the one hand, I think the arrival of this museum would be a terrific cornerstone in the redevelopment of the DAP district, and would help bring a broad stream of tourists through the Bull City. (Plus, I'm a big baseball fan, who'd love to have this around the corner.)

But I'm still left scratching my head over how it's a Durham (or a North Carolina) responsibility to fund a museum for a sporting league.

Now, I don't have a problem with cities helping to support sports facilities for professional teams -- at least not to a reasonable level. After all, besides their economic development impact on local businesses and development, they also provide an entertainment outlet for local residents and families, providing a source of recreation. (I'd argue that this rationale is far stronger for facilities like the DBAP, whose funding in the 1990s I certainly think was the right idea, where the tickets to see games are very affordable.)

And I don't have a problem with cities funding theaters and performing arts facilities. After all, these facilities support the arts, both in terms of national productions and local acts, along with assemblies like school graduations and the like. And, again, while there's positive economic externalities that help justify the construction, it's a facility that primarily serves local audiences.

But a museum that would primarily help grow and support the brand of a national business, and which would primarily cater to out-of-region visitors? Somehow it doesn't resonate the same way with me for demanding local tax support.

Of course, if the hotel and tourism industry is behind it, and behind using the room occupancy tax for it, that's fine by me. (After all, those taxes are levied on their customers for the express purpose of helping to draw more paying customers in for the hotel.) And if there's cash left over after supporting the Durham Performing Arts Center, well, great.

But it's not too surprising to hear Basnight give the idea of state subsidies a cold shoulder. For one thing, it's an election year -- and given Democratic candidate for governor Richard Moore's links to the laughable failure formerly known as "The Randy Parton Theater" out thar' in Roanoke Rapids, one would not look forward to the drubbing a Graham or Orr would give the Dems over funding a baseball museum in the Bull City.

It also doesn't help that the $20 million in "state support" for Charlotte's NASCAR Hall of Fame (courtesy of a land loan) benefited the stompin' grounds of everyone's least favorite ophthalmologist, the disgraced Jim Black, who supported the use of the commonweal for the common man's wheel-sports museum.

All of which, though, is slightly orthogonal to the real heart of the matter: Should a professional sports hall of fame be a matter for public enterprise? Here, or in Charlotte, or wherever?

In an era when Durham is far overcommited for capital projects and bond obligations, it's an important question to ask.

Comments

Ray Gronberg

Kevin, I wrote about the state-subsidy angle back on June 20:

"Durham officials may request state subsidies for a museum honoring the history of Minor League Baseball, depending on how talks with executives of that organization unfold in the coming months.

Mayor Bill Bell and City Manager Patrick Baker have already alerted Durham's senior legislators, state Reps. Mickey Michaux and Paul Luebke, that a subsidy request could be forthcoming.

Officials compare the city's position to that of Charlotte, which two years ago secured the General Assembly's permission to raise hotel occupancy taxes to help finance construction of a NASCAR Hall of Fame. They contend a baseball museum tied to the planned renovation of the Durham Athletic Park could become a significant tourist draw.

'While it might be specific to Durham, it might have statewide or national appeal,' Bell said, adding that a subsidy for such a museum would be 'like an economic-development investment, just like the state does when they try to attract development to an area.'

Luebke, D-Durham, acknowledged being briefed by city officials and said a subsidy request would be 'certainly legitimate' given that the N.C. Department of Commerce is 'generally very open to helping with special economic development situations.'

But he cautioned that the course of any future debate will be shaped by what the city and Minor League Baseball wind up asking the state to give.

He also warned that the city shouldn't press the NASCAR analogy too far, given that Charlotte's success in procuring money for that project was partly thanks to the influence of bribery-tainted former N.C. House Speaker Jim Black, D-Mecklenburg."

barry

what amazes me is that in the "socialist" economies of Europe, sports teams are expected to pay their own way entirely. The idea that taxpayers should subsidize profit making enterprises is a non-starter. The controversy over Everton's relocation from Liverpool to the suburbs of Kirkby, for example, is so different in quality from what takes place in the States regarding sports teams and municipalities, that it really is shocking.

fortunately for sports barons, only a relative handful of US fans are aware of the discrepancy.

here's a brief intro to the Everton saga:
http://football.guardian.co.uk/News_Story/0,,2234302,00.html

Kevin Davis

Hey Ray,

Should have known you had this one covered. I was in Chicago for work on the 20th and think I missed this when it first ran. Appreciate the heads-up and the story link.

Hadn't realized anyone was explicitly thinking about the Jim Black link. I just discovered it when looking at the comparable on the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

I wonder who funded the centers of athletic excitement in Cooperstown, Canton, and Springfield?

Of course, Minor League Baseball is not necessarily a lucrative endeavor. I understand that it's very profitable for a small number of teams -- Durham's included among that number -- who have strong attendance and tight operations. But the expansion of minor league play has led to many teams that just break even, or even lose money.

But still, the minors are under the thumb of Major League Baseball, which is enjoying a high-revenue, high-profit renaissance. Which seems to change the picture here.

B

I don't know...I think you've touched on the problem inherent to *any* public subsidy of *any* private enterprise. The fact that some projects might end up a net benefit to the community (as you've pointed out with the case of the DBAP here) whereas others are not is really beside the point.

To put it another way, I think there is a bright line between between subsidizing private enterprise and not. But there isn't one between, for example, the DBAP and the MiLB Museum.

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