By Richard Boyles
Given the ballooning expense to build a new stadium for the Eugene Emeralds — now projected to cost more than $100 million — and a lack of transparency related to the future maintenance, operating costs and the community’s return on investment, Lane County should pause this project.
As a sports fan and Ems sponsor over the years, I want to see the team continue to play ball here. As a concerned citizen and as a taxpayer, I want more transparency.
Owned by Elmore Sports Group Ltd., an out-of-state for-profit company, the Ems have proposed paying 20 years of rent and equipment in advance to get the project off the ground. That’s $13 million the county could use toward construction, but it is still rent — money the county would be entitled to anyway for use of the stadium. It is not an outright capital contribution. By prepaying, the Ems are in essence locking in their rent for 20 years — that’s a pretty sweet deal. In comparison, the owner of the Hillsboro Hops is contributing $75 million of the $120 million it will cost to build that team’s new stadium.
Other proposed funding includes $1.5 million in federal tax dollars, $7.5 million in state tax dollars and $35 million in local lodging tax dollars — all public funds. All told, that’s $57 million, if you count the prepaid rent. The remaining $43 million is still a question mark.
It’s important to note that lodging tax dollars are to be spent on projects that support tourism. If we spend $35 million in lodging taxes to fund this project, it will tie up our local tourism fund for 20 years, meaning no major projects could be funded to support tourism for two decades.
Where will it be built? The Ems are asking Lane County to carve out 9.5 acres (20 percent) to build the stadium at the Lane Events Center — an allocation that could force large conferences and events to look elsewhere, reducing overnight stays and visitor spending. An example is the annual Oregon Logging Conference that generates $5.5 million in economic impact from visitor spending each winter.
Are there any guarantees? Despite their request for a huge financial commitment, there is no obligation for the Ems to remain in Eugene or for Major League Baseball (MLB) to keep them in the league. The reality is that there are dozens of minor league ballparks around the country that sit empty after municipalities spent millions in taxpayer dollars to build them. A reorganization by MLB just three years ago left 40 municipalities seeking long-term solutions for their stadiums. Baseball stadiums cannot be easily repurposed. They are built for one thing — baseball.
Proponents claim that a new stadium will reap economic benefits, but studies conducted by economists and tourism experts have invalidated the idea that publicly funded baseball stadiums are financially profitable for anyone other than the teams’ owners. In a study published by George Mason University, economist Dennis Coats concluded that despite the millions of dollars spent, little to none of that money makes its way back to taxpayers who subsidize teams by building new stadiums.
How much will a new stadium cost to maintain? Who will pay that expense? No credible economic analysis or pro forma operating budget has come to light that answers these questions.
This stadium decision shouldn’t happen in an information vacuum or without the consideration of other projects that might produce a better return on investment, like an all-season indoor sports facility that could host large-scale tournaments and also serve as a critical emergency shelter — an identified top priority.
On August 22, Lane County commissioners will consider whether to 1) proceed with the design and permitting, which could cost upward of $5 million; or, 2) put the Ems stadium project on hold until questions are answered and funding is secured. Once the design and permitting happens, the pressure to close the $43 million gap will rise exponentially. Where will those funds come from?
As much as we all love the Ems, this stadium is not a home run for our community. Email County Commissioners and ask for an intermission until we have answers.