January 15, 2014

About That Stadium

Last night I offered my second post on Governor Andrew Cuomo's State of the State address. I noted he called out the collaborative efforts that we've grown used to here between Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney and Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner, and how they could be an example for other leaders in any of New York's 10,500 jurisdictions.

Another focus of last night's post was the issue that has apparently slowed the collaboration, the Onondaga County - Syracuse University - SUNY Upstate Medical University - private developer - Sonofa Governor plan to plop a $500 million sports stadium in the city of Syracuse.  Notably absent from the collective planning was Mayor Miner, according to several reports. The mayor has some questions; other politicians and community leaders do as well. I do too, a few of which have been answered to some degree in this interview WYSR's Joe Galuski did with Joanie.

I initially wondered about the proximity of the suggested location to the elevated section of Route 81, which folks around here know will reach "the end of its useful life" in 2017. Conversations on what to do with the highway continue, with the public comment portion of the discussion coming to a close this week. The solutions for 81 haven't sounded all that creative -- a 'boulevard' in place of the elevated highway is the leading proposal, I think -- but it would be interesting to picture how the two projects would intersect, what the construction schedules would be, and how we ensure that we get full value out of both.

Our infrastructure issues, which span the width and breadth of the city, would not likely be improved by the development of the stadium and the other 1 million feet of commercial and residential space in the neighborhood, which according to Mahoney's radio interview would include a couple of small parking garages and a hotel. (There are close to 12,000 parking spaces within half a mile of the proposed location). And note, of course, that we still don't have a convention center hotel, and this project won't give us one.

I was confused on what the tax status of the project would be. SU and SUNY Upstate are generally tax-exempt, and it would be a concern if the stadium property also was tax free.  Mahoney indicated it would be privately owned, and taxable.  That's a good thing, as long as we actually collect taxes on it. Typically developments end up with Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) deals, as well as sales tax exemptions on construction, waiver of filing fees, and so on -- so I would hope that the tax-ability of the property was realized very quickly, rather than after some 10, 15, 20 or even 30 years, as has been the case on past development projects.

I wondered, If we build this and SU will come to play there, is it for basketball? Football? Lacrosse? All of these?  Does SU really want to give up the largest on-campus basketball arena and instead rely on a private facility at an off-campus location? That surprises me, unless that's the only way they'll be able to get 35,000 or more in to a game.

Because, we all know, of course, about the 'down-sitting-donor' yoga pose which is regularly exhibited at Carrier Dome events, and maybe this new facility could solve that problem. Of course, then would you have folks get football season tickets at the Dome and other sport season tickets at the new place? And parking passes at both? How's that going to go over with the old guys who pay big bucks for their front row seats or their luxury boxes? I'm trying to picture my company, who has some limited sponsorship at the Dome, having that conversation in the executive suite.

Carrier Dome from Onondaga Lake
Or, does the new facility get used for SU football too? Better for the donors, I guess. But what then becomes of the Dome? Can't imagine that SU would let her sit there unused, occupying critical on-campus real estate. Could we -- would we -- lose our iconic Teflon bubble? Lord, I hope not!

And the Syracuse Crunch?  Mahoney indicated in her newspaper interview that they might be on board. Doesn't that leave a gaping hole in the Oncenter schedule? And, correspondingly, in the wallets of the businesses that rely to some degree on Oncenter events to bring in revenue? Are we just going to sacrifice those businesses for the new ones that will grow up in the new stadium neighborhood?  I know that's Governor Cuomo's style, as he showed us with his Tax-Free NY plan, allowing new businesses and their employees to be tax free, while everyone else pays as required.

Mahoney indicated this would be a 365-days-a-year facility, that would get us the events that currently hop over Syracuse travelling from Rochester to Albany and vice versa. That would be a good thing - it would almost have to be a mandatory thing, so that we could get some money out of the hotel room tax.  And that we'd have concerts, which SU couldn't put on for the general public without having to make a crazy stretch to prove an educational component and protect their tax status. So my question about getting a Springsteen concert, well that could theoretically happen if we built this thing.

All that's well and good, I guess.  My main concern with this is that we have a private university, a private stadium owner, a private developer with his million feet of stuff, and yet, it sounds like something close to half of the project funding-- over $200 million from the state alone, with additional contributions from SU, Onondaga County, and others -- is coming from public dollars.  I griped about that when we taxpayers spent over a billion on the new Yankee Stadium, and another $800 million or so for the new Mets playground. I complain about it every time someone comes with hand outstretched and says "I have a great idea! It's so good I want you to pay me to make it happen!"

I understand bold ideas, and creative thinking, and a bunch of people sitting around talking about fun stuff.  I just hate when those conversations take their inevitable turn to government coffers.

And I wonder where are all the limited-government folks, because they should be screaming about this. And because I'm not sure, but I don't think you'll find mention of a stadium anywhere in those pocket Constitutions people are so proud to carry around. 

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