In 1990, the voters of Cuyahoga County voted — just barely and after a lot of manipulation such as a press conference days before the election announcing that the Cavs would move downtown from Richfield if a new arena was built and the promise of 28,000 “good, permanent” jobs — to pass a so-called “sin” tax. That tax on cigarettes and alcohol provided hundreds of millions of dollar to construct a new baseball stadium and arena, now known as Progressive Field and Quicken Loans Arena.
After the relocation of the Browns to Baltimore was announced in late 1995, voters OK’d an extension of the “sin” tax to pay for the construction of a brand-new stadium for a new team, promised by the National Football League if it was gifted with a such a stadium. Not as well known, because they were not on the ballot, taxes were also added to parking and car rental fees, and the city of Cleveland’s already-high 6% admissions tax was increased to 8% to help pay for stadium costs.
In January, Cuyahoga county council voted to place an extension of the “sin” tax, which is set to expire in July 2015, on the May 6 primary ballot, saying that the money was needed for repairs and upgrades. This followed a lightning-quick approval by Cleveland city council and Mayor Frank Jackson last November of a $30 million payment to the Browns from the city of Cleveland over the next 15 years to pay for “improvements” at their stadium where the city is technically their landlord. These include a flashy new scoreboard “needed” primarily to enhance advertising revenues, which go entirely to the team.
An expensive campaign — paid for by exactly whom we don’t know yet — was organized to pass the extension under the banner of “Keep Cleveland Strong.” An ad hoc citizens group calling itself Coalition Against the Sin Tax (C.A.S.T.) is mounting grassroots opposition.
But what are we paying for and how is this going to “keep Cleveland strong”? A typical reaction I’m hearing is that Cleveland ISN’T strong, but it COULD be with the right priorities and investments. So these are key issues that must be addressed.
The strength of a city or region resides in its citizens and their well-being. A “strong” city sees population growth, job growth, income growth, and an increase in education levels, as well as declines in poverty, unemployment, crime, addiction, illness, illiteracy, and foreclosure.
If Cleveland WAS “strong” — and by the measures above, it’s not — how would having professional sports teams keep it that way? (Some of the country’s most flourishing cities had or have no major league professional sports teams or only one or two, while dying Detroit has four). And if it’s not “strong “ how would professional sports teams contribute to improving the measures above? And what is the cost of these teams in proportion to the return i.e. the impact on the measures above?
The new tax is expected to raise in the vicinity of $260 million over the next 15 years. (An exact figure can’t be pinned down because it’s tied to the amount of alcohol and cigarette purchases, which changes over time).
It’s not “free” money, or a trivial amount that nobody will feel, and hey — it’s not a “new” tax, say the proponents, which is true. But unless more population and more jobs come to the area, it’s taken away from someplace else. Is that someplace else more valuable and more productive in improving quality of life measures, creating jobs, and recycling money through the local economy?
Appealing to the area’s fictional strength and to such unquantifiable entities as “civic pride” to extract more wealth from the region doesn’t answer these critical dollars-and-cents questions. Claiming we must at all costs keep “our” teams — which aren’t “ours” in any meaningful way since we have no control over their activities and virtually all the profits go elsewhere — seems to be an appeal to desperation and weakness, rather than strength.