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Downtown or not, Kansas City taxpayers shouldn’t pay a cent for a new stadium

Billionaires can pay for the things that benefit billionaires.

A father and his daughter walk through the stands toward the field as they arrive early on Opening Day ahead of the game between the Chicago White Sox and the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium on March 29, 2018 in Kansas City, Missouri. Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Every once in a while, somebody in the Kansas City Royals discussion sphere brings up the possibility of a downtown stadium. There hasn’t been a downtown stadium in Kansas City since Municipal Stadium shuttered its doors on 2123 Brooklyn Avenue as a result of Kauffman Stadium’s opening in 1973. A brand new baseball stadium in the heart of a rejuvinated downtown area, the argument goes, would bring even more economic electricity to downtown businesses and offer a great baseball experience at the same time.

The entire Kansas City Star editorial board re-opened this particular can of worms on February 25 with an article arguing that Kansas City ought to seriously consider building a downtown stadium for when Kauffman Stadium’s lease with the team ends in 2031. That may seem a long ways away, but properly exploring the options in the complicated world of large-scale construction, civic planning, and land rights moves slowly. Kansas City fans and city leaders must weigh the options sooner rather than later.

There isn’t much consensus on whether or not this should indeed be done. While Kansas City residents may not think so due to familiarity, Kauffman Stadium is a historical and iconic venue that has hosted multiple World Series and All-Star Games and is the sixth-oldest active MLB park. Reasons for keeping it are clear. Reasons for wanting a new stadium in a place that isn’t surrounded by a giant parking lot and a major highway in the middle of a random suburb are clear, too. Half of active MLB ballparks have been built since 2000. New stadiums are the norm nowadays.

But this discussion, fascinating as it is, is obscuring the more important one. One way or another, there will be significant capital cost needed to keep Kansas City baseball afloat after 2031. By that point, the most recent renovations to Kauffman will be almost a quarter century old. Regardless whether there are renovations or a new stadium, there is a bill coming due—not only for Kauffman, but Arrowhead Stadium as well.

The taxpayers should not shoulder a single cent of that burden.

Part of the reason why they shouldn’t happen is that the costs involved are simply enormous. Renovations will be the more reasonable option, but are still extremely high, easily in the realm of hundreds of millions of dollars. The most recent Truman Sports Complex renovations cost $625 million, for example, of which Kauffman Stadium’s specific portion numbered $250 million. In 2019 dollars, the entire renovations would total $772 million, Kauffman Stadium’s portion being about $300 million.

By contrast, the yearly operating budget of Kansas City Public Schools is around $230 million.

A new downtown stadium would be an even larger undertaking as well. The most recent downtown baseball park, Target Field in Minneapolis, cost $550 million and opened in 2010. Meanwhile, each of the five most recent new NFL stadiums has each costed over $1 billion. It’s not out of the question that a Kauffman and Arrowhead replacement could together cost close to $2 billion.

By contrast, the 2019/2020 budget for the entire city of Kansas City and all its many services and costs is $1.76 billion.

It is true that Arrowhead and Kauffman are different situations, and if you would rather consider them individually, then that’s a valid point. Just know that each situation is similar in that taxpayers usually bear the overwhelming brunt of costs. Henepin County shouldered $360 million of the $555 million that Target Field cost, not an usual figure. Jackson County’s hand in the $625 million Truman Sports Complex renovations was $425 million.

But cost is only one part of the equation. The other part is that spending such money is a gigantic waste of time and resources. The Kansas City Royals and the Kansas City Chiefs are private companies. Their owners are, quite literally, billionaires. Both franchises are worth over a billion dollars. The Royals pull in a quarter of a billion dollars in revenue every now. Suplying taxpayer money is nothing more than willing billionaire subsidization.

It would be one thing if stadiums did something remotely helpful. Ultimately, though, they do not. There are 81 games at Kauffman Stadium every year, 81 days where the stadium is active. This means, however, that the stadium is inactive (read: completely empty) 284 days, or 78%, of the year. Football stadiums are even worse. Baseball and football stadiums do one thing and one thing well, but save for the odd Taylor Swift concert here and there are entirely useless otherwise.

Furthermore, academic research does not back up the claims that stadiums are benefits to the economy. Even if it did, it wouldn’t be a remotely efficient way of developing an area or spurring growth. If a city is committed to pouring half a billion dollars into its economy, it could do so actually and directly developing an area, providing services, and expanding educational opportunities. Putting it into the hands of a third party first—a third party that could leave the city on the hook for millions if it wants to relocate—is profoundly stupid.

Ultimately, the choice Kansas City taxpayers ought to make is not whether or not to build the stadium. Rather, the choice they ought to make is whether or not they should pay for any stadium upgrades at all. If the Glass family wants to build a new stadium downtown, well, more power to them. If they want to renovate Kauffman, great. But it should be their choice because it is their money. Not the money of taxpayers.