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The Boston Globe

Opinion

Derrick Z. Jackson

Motor City hustle

Joe Louis Arena and an abandoned house in Detroit.

Getty Images

Joe Louis Arena and an abandoned house in Detroit.

I drove into work Tuesday hearing how Detroiters have given up on city services and have taken it upon themselves to board up houses and tear down abandoned properties. One group called itself the Motor City Blight Busters. One person told National Public Radio, “We didn’t get anything before the bankruptcy, we’re not going to get anything after it.”

In the face of their desperation, and Detriot’s inability to provide basic services, the state of Michigan is ready to pony up — for a pro hockey arena.

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Here is the most bereft big city in America. It is billions of dollars in debt and literally cannot keep the lights on. But the klieg lights blaze on for the Red Wings, after the state last week approved up to $450 million in bonds for a $650 million arena-entertainment district.

Time and again, pro teams pressure state and local governments into subsidizing new stadiums and arenas. But by repeating this process in Detroit, which declared bankruptcy a week before, Michigan policy makers deserve the Stanley Cup of fleecing.

As a native Midwesterner with relatives in the Detroit area, I want to see the city come back. As a sports fan, I recognize the significant cultural value in having sports teams to rally around and create common ground, just as it is important to have venues for music, arts, and theater. But it is galling for Michigan to fund an arena for billionaires Mike and Marian Ilitch — who also own the Detroit Tigers and Little Caesars pizza.

For nearly three decades, studies have shown that publicly funded arenas and stadiums are massive taxpayer sinkholes and that it is far more efficient to create jobs with normal public infrastructure. Testifying before Congress in 2007, Harvard urban planning professor Judith Grant Long said that between 1990 and 2006, public funding for stadiums and arenas added up to $18.5 billion, with “absolutely no evidence” of equal return in public benefits.

Instead, she said, many cities have ended up with “a stark juxtaposition of the needs of low- and moderate-income residents living near the facilities, versus those of the high-income team owners, athletes, and facility patrons.”

You cannot get any more stark than Detroit and other cities such as Cleveland where downtown sports citadels loom over ramshackle neighborhoods. As residents in both those cities volunteer to board up abandoned houses, taxpayers from Seattle to New Jersey are still paying tens of millions of dollars a year to retire debts from stadiums that were razed for new stadiums. Mind you, stadiums are not demolished because they are structurally unsound. They are destroyed to make room for the most lavish facility possible so that billionaire owners can reap extra profits from sky boxes.

Detroit is so bad off that even experts long critical of public funding for sports stadiums are rooting that somehow, this corporate welfare for the Ilitch empire trickles down to the Motor City Blight Busters. Bruce Katz, director of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, told the Detroit Free Press that perhaps in this case, the project could reinforce “the centrality of the city, the role of the city.”

Sports economist Andrew Zimbalist of Smith College told me that since the state, not Detroit, is backing the arena, the city could possibly benefit if non-hockey events fill the arena and the entertainment district is active all year round. “I’m not saying this is going to be wonderful for Detroit,” Zimbalist said over the telephone. “There are better ways to invest that money. The problem is . . . education and health care are not the sort of thing people rally around for glitz and sex appeal.”

History says that is hoping against hope. In the neighborhoods of Detroit, residents busting down houses expect nothing from bankruptcy. The Red Wings are already assured a new palace, courtesy of Michigan’s taxpayers. That is moral bankruptcy.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at jackson@globe.com.
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