Neither pucks nor Picassos

Why now’s not the time to pursue a pro-sports stadium or a world-class museum

Meg Hunt

What should come first, the sports stadium or the fan base, the world-class museum or the appreciative culture? To those counting the days until we can pay to see flying pucks (or basketballs) or hanging Picassos—in a museum not attached to a casino, that is—my answer may sound like heresy: The latter is more important, particularly if we’re serious about either endeavor.

My opposition is partially rooted in the ass-whipping our economy’s taking. Call me paranoid, but I don’t see how we can build without either some kind of public subsidy or generous tax break, à la the millions given to the World Market Center’s proprietors or the $300 million in “green” savings over the next decade for MGM Mirage’s CityCenter.

My consternation has more to do with how quickly we blew our wad—premature adulation, if you will—when two stadium proposals were announced last year. In our giddiness, we overlooked a growing body of research that shows new stadiums can be economic bloodsuckers that mainly enrich their corporate overseers, provide little in the way of jobs and often drain the life out of neighboring businesses.

We’ve also not taken into account the logistical concerns that’d be created by Harrah’s Entertainment/AEG’s $500 million, 20,000-seat sports and entertainment arena on traffic-choked Flamingo and Koval (behind Bally’s). Where are attendees going to park? What’s that going to do to air quality?

And who’s to say that tight lending markets, rising construction costs and Harrah’s massive debt (billions) won’t compel the companies to ask the county to float bonds to help pay for construction or to seek steep tax benefits?

As for REI Neon’s plans for a Downtown stadium, mark my words: If it ever gets off the ground, you can be sure that public subsidies will play a major role.

I understand the nuances for tax breaks—if someone’s investing billions, why haggle over millions; we’re getting the better end of the bargain. True, but I happen to think that in paying taxes companies are paying for the privilege of doing business. I have a hard time believing World Market Center, CityCenter, Palazzo or Echelon wouldn’t have been built without their attendant tax breaks. But I’m convinced that we should oppose public subsidies for projects like a stadium or a museum.

Wouldn’t monies raised from higher taxes be better served in education, transportation and social services, areas with more visceral impacts on our quality of life? A sports stadium strikes me as the municipal equivalent of a trophy wife—good to look at, something you boast about, but of limited utility.

With a stadium, there’s the not-so-insignificant matter of landing a team, which is unlikely unless the NBA and Valley leaders come to an agreement on sports betting. Meantime, the NHL’s enthusiasm for a Las Vegas franchise is lukewarm. Las Vegas loves winners, and I wonder if we have the patience to weather what could be lean times.

During the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels’ lean years, the 19,000-seat Thomas & Mack Center was only half full. The only time Sam Boyd Stadium is packed is when a powerhouse comes to town—opposing fans fill most of those seats. Thanks to visits from Wisconsin, Hawaii and BYU, the Rebels averaged 29,281 fans last year. Without them, we’re lucky to get 20,000 per.

The average NBA ticket costs $51.02 ($72.53 when factoring in food, drinks and parking, according to Team Marketing Report), and I’m not sure there are 20,000 people willing to shell out that kind of money for 41 home games. Or if enough folks will pay between $45 and $82—the price range for an individual NHL ticket—to see 41 homes games.

According to the International Council of Museums, “Cities need museums like people need memories—not as a repository of their past, but as a token of their identity and a guide to the future.”

I’d agree if we were talking about some other city. Local museums should aspire to being historical repositories, since no one can say with any specificity what the future holds. But our pursuit of a world-class museum at times seems less genuine, like a personal goal that will satisfy a select few, bringing bragging rights for those tired of defending the city they live in.

To be clear, I’m not against a pro-sports stadium or a world-class museum. But now’s not the time for either. Let’s first cultivate the type of fandom likely to support a professional sports team, so we don’t find ourselves, 20 years down line, trying to keep our franchise, held hostage by an owner dead-set on getting us to pay for a new arena.

Let’s work on lifting the Valley’s cultural IQ from the ground up—public education to higher education—so that we can raise a generation not only appreciative of the arts but also willing to financially support them. Maybe the Guggenheim might still be around if more people recognized its importance. (The Las Vegas Art Museum has the right idea with its youth education program, which is supposed to increase in participants once the museum moves to its theoretical new digs sometime in the near future).

Oh, and one more gripe. More than one-third of the funding for the $360 million Smith Center for the Performing Arts, slated to open Downtown in 2011, comes from increased rental-car costs, paid mostly by tourists. If we can foist additional fees onto tourists to help subsidize a performing-arts center, then why can’t we do the same to inject more money into our basic needs?


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