Thursday, December 08, 2005


Forest City Ratner consultant Andrew Zimbalist, then and now

Smith College economics professor Andrew Zimbalist, a consultant to Forest City Ratner, is behind some of the highly-questionable economic projections regarding the Atlantic Yards project--see Chapter 3 of my report. I plan to take another look at those projections later, but let's now consider an even more basic issue: who should control own sports teams and thus build sports facilities?

In the 1998 book Field of Schemes: How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money Into Private Profit, co-authored by Joanna Cagan and Neil deMause, the authors suggested that, if sports teams were municipally owned, sports stadiums would be less expensive:
Existing structures wouldn't have to be razed to satisfy an eager owner's desire to see team profits or his own net worth rapidly increase. Instead, cooler heads might prevail when changes in architecture or money-making cause some to cast a longing eye toward sparkling new facilities. For if they aren't inherently cooler-headed, local politicians at least have some democratic accountability to local taxpayers--something corporate owners are sorely lacking.

And who did the authors find to endorse this? Andrew Zimbalist, who had once tried to create a baseball league that would have had teams owned by a consortia of players, municipalities, and private investors:
"It's a logical thing to happen," says Zimbalist. "Sports teams are just perfect vehicles for public ownership for all sorts of reasons--the most important being the large investment the public is expected to make in these teams, but also because it's really a public good, and it has a cultural dominance that's unlike anything else in our society."

Some six years later, Zimbalist had changed his tune. Before he even issued his first report, dated May 2004, he told Erik Enquist of the Courier-Life chain (Brooklyn Politics, 2/16/04):
"The main reason I've been supportive of this project-and I was supportive before Forest City Ratner asked me to help them with some economic projections-is not because of its potential to raise per-capita income or employment, but because it's wonderful for Brooklyn, for cultural enrichment, cultural identity, to restore something that has been robbed from Brooklyn. I think Brooklyn lost an important part of its heritage when [Walter] O'Malley moved the Dodgers.
"The idea of supporting a sports arena is similar to supporting a public park. You don't do it because it's going to raise per-capita income."

Public parks, however, don't deliver profits to a private owner. Of course Zimbalist later did argue that the project as a whole would have a significant economic impact--calculations that deserve further scrutiny. But it's curious that Zimbalist himself seems to have expressed some of the "idealized nostalgia" that John Manbeck, in his New York Times op-ed, claimed of project critics.

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