Friday, October 14, 2005

Deja Vu

Over at Capitol Punishment , Chris outlines a Boswell article from today's WaPo about potential renovations to RFK. It seems that Boz is in St. Louis and has had ample time to plumb the depths of the once renovated, soon to be destroyed Busch Stadium. Chris raises an interesting question: might some Croppites out there start calling for a similar renovation of RFK in lieu of building a new stadium? It wouldn't surprise me at all, but the renovation will never happen.

Those who read this blog regularly know that I don't buy in to much, if any, of the cynical doomsday predictions surrounding the Nats in the media. You see, I've been through all this before in my previous life as a Reds fan. I lived in Cincinnati in the mid-90's at the height of the professional sports stadium extortion era. In 1995 both the Bengals and the Reds told the taxpayers of Hamilton County that the teams would move elsewhere if they did not pony up for new stadiums. These were real threats back then; Los Angeles and Houston were available for NFL teams and the Devil Rays and Diamondbacks were twinkles in their cities' eyes. The taxpayers in one of America's most conservative counties went to the polls in March 1996 and approved a half penny on the dollar sales tax increase to pay for two new stadiums...at an ultimate cost of one billion dollars.

The Bengals wasted no time breaking ground on Paul Brown Stadium, but Great American Ball Park was a different story. The city council and the Reds immediately began squabbling over where to build the stadium and what form the lease should take. Some wanted the park to be built on the site of Riverfront Stadium and others wanted the park farther into downtown. The haggling went on for months, and months became years. At the height of the impasse, some city council members (who were running for mayor in the next election cycle) started questioning the need for a new stadium. Busch Stadium had just been renovated to rave reviews, and they wondered why the same couldn't be done to Riverfront. People soon realized what an idiotic idea this was, and GABP opened in 2003.

Renovating old, inadequate stadiums is a waste of money because the returns are so low on the investment. The cookie-cutter stadiums (of which RFK will be the last) have an expected useful life of 30 years. It is more cost effective to build a brand new stadium (thus creating an additional 30 year asset) than it is to spend money on renovations that only extend the life for another ten years. The reason is simple: the cost of money today is cheaper than it will be ten years from now. Busch Stadium was built in 1966 for $20 million. That's only $117 million in today's dollars. But the DC stadium project is estimated at $581 million dollars! It doesn't make sense to renovate RFK any more than necessary to make it an adequate place to play until the new park arrives.

Furthermore, there are some things about RFK that just can't be renovated away. There are only two kitchens and one service elevator in the stadium. This guarantees that the quality of the food at the park will always be one notch above that of a vending machine. The concourses are narrow; fans have to cut through the food lines just to get around to their seats. And of course, there aren't enough restrooms, especially for the ladies. If Linda Cropp ever suggests renovating RFK stadium then I suggest we have her drink a gallon of water and then go stand in line for the restroom at a Sunday afternoon game.

Stadiums are major city landmarks and an important source of civic pride. Projects of this emotional magnitude bring every politician and neighborhood do-gooder out of the woodwork for their 15 minutes of fame. If the Cincinnati experience holds true here, we haven't even seen the tip of the stadium-fight iceberg. But this stadium will be built sometime this decade. And all of these same politicians will be offering up tear-jerking tributes to RFK and congratulating each other for building the new park. In my crystal ball I see Linda Cropp taking the mound on Opening Day 2010 throwing out the first pitch in Nationals Stadium.