Sports projects on the dole

Government dollars make stadium projects recession-proof

March 01, 2001 |

While building projects in many commercial sectors face uncertain futures, the sports niche is as robust as ever. Fueled by a mix of technology, ebullient fans-and government support-the momentum of sports construction is like that of the public sector: there's never a recession.

Part of the reason is the use of public funds and new taxes and bonds to pay for the projects. What's more, federal agencies play an increasingly pivotal role in the push for sports venues. In Utah, for example, a baseball stadium project is set to receive a federal loan of up to $3.5 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), announced in January by outgoing Secretary Andrew Cuomo. And last August, HUD funds totaling $1 million were granted to Pittsburgh for the project engineering and design of PNC Park, one of two new sports facilities to replace the recently imploded Three Rivers Stadium.

They're not alone. HUD disbursements and Community Development Block Grants (CDBGs) have been used by local and state leaders over the last few years to pay for or induce the development of stadiums in Atlanta; Austin, Texas; Cleveland; Los Angeles and San Francisco.

No stadiums allowed?

Like new taxes or utility surcharges, the use of HUD money is always contentious. But the controversy goes beyond local politics and to the definition of what constitutes urban development. In 2000, HUD awarded $25 million nationwide in grants and loans to communities at reduced interest rates to add housing, promote economic development or improve public facilities. By federal law, HUD funds can't be used for stadium projects, and CDBG funds are intended only for urban renewal.

To comply, stadium developers and eager local governments have found creative dodges. In Pittsburgh, for example, the money paid for engineering for PNC Park, but not for construction. In Ironton, Utah, the HUD dollars are also earmarked for project engineering and design, as well as for "infrastructure improvements" for a 15,000-sq.-ft., 5,000-seat baseball facility, but not for the stadium itself. In addition, the project is set to receive $250,000 of CDBGs for new streets and storm drains.

To qualify for CDBGs, projects must be located in marginal or blighted areas. The Ironton development, for example, is part of a larger development that includes a business park, sited on a 250-acre brownfield with a defunct steel mill. (The stadium design by Salt Lake City's Valentiner Crane Architects is still on the boards; construction is slated for fall.)

At PNC Park, the HUD grants will benefit a locale that, while not exactly blighted, is not what Mayor Tom Murphy wants national television audiences to see. For a more telegenic view, politicians and stadium developers are pressing for upgrades to "sore thumbs" like a city parking garage and a 1923 utility building owned by Duquesne Light Co.

To complement the stadium's exterior, the garage has received a new coat of bluish-gray paint, and designs for a new steel frame and anodized aluminum screen for the utility have been unveiled by Pittsburgh-based A/E JSA Architects.

So far, however, no public funds have been committed to the utility project.

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