We all know the new stadium scam playbook in-and-out: teams commit to a long-term lease, promise to create jobs, and show off some hired gun economic impact study. Local communities then throw subsidies, free land, and tax breaks at them to the tune of hundreds of millions. In reality, the stadium creates only a few part-time and low-wage jobs, the surrounding neighborhood gentrifies only a bit (based on, duh, external factors like location), and the team tries to weasel out of the lease in later years (or extract renovation concessions).
Yet, in both Detroit and Liverpool, England, a new and far more sinister stadium plan has emerged: strategic blight.
In an excellent article on the Pizza Magnates (aka Illitch family) and the Detroit Red Wings’ new stadium, Stephen Henderson vary tactfully questions why they bought so much land in anticipation of a new stadium and sat on it for a few years. Of course, the owners claim that the economy sucked and it was not a good moment to invest heavily in, say, making sure the properties were not shitholes. However, when large investment groups buy up swaths of land in a neighborhood and don’t invest heavily in upgrades, that creates a ripple effect for neighbors. For example, say said “Investment Group LLC” bought some houses and warehouses. Not having these places inhabited attracts street crime such as drug-dealers and squatters and other undesirables. This in turn decreases the quality of life (and property values).
If I was a cynic, I’d say that Investment Group LLC actually wanted to turn a neighborhood into a shithole to then buy the remaining land more cheaply. I’m not that cynical, but my criticism is related: what about the opportunity cost? If Investment Group LLC buys land to sit on it and let it go into disrepair, what if that land had been bought by a proper real estate developer with more immediate gentrification plans that would have benefited at least some residents in the near future? Of course, Detroit, like all cities, has a building code that requires a building to be structurally sound or it can’t be certified as habitable. But that’s the problem: these vulture real estate groups don’t want a habitable building (they plan on demolishing it anyway). They want to inflict short-term suffering on other residents and eventually force a sale with sweet terms.
Don’t believe me? Take a look at what happened with Liverpool FC. The club bought 150 homes around Anfield and left them vacant. Nope, not even renters. Things got so bad that thieves broke into the homes and stole everything, stripping lead off of roofs. Some of the houses were even set on fire. The plan was named “Dereliction by Design” as Liverpool used shell smaller companies to buy the houses and let neighborhoods go to hell. They had to use shell companies because if residents got win that Liverpool was the buyer and had stadium plans, they would have presumably held out for more money.
And that leads to the fundamental imbalance: a single homeowner can’t afford to buy a home and leave it vacant. Liverpool and the Detroit Red Wings can. Yet the municipalities deserve blame as well for letting these major businesses inflict short-term suffering on other residents. They could have been fined for building and housing code violations. Also, at the height of the recession, some cities debated as “Occupancy Law” that would require individuals to physically occupy structures on land a portion of the year or risking losing it to the public domain.
Of course, those laws and ideas went nowhere. The folks who cut checks to political campaigns are the same ones who strategically blight the neighborhoods of future neighborhoods. But as long as folks pay to see games live and look the other way on dealings, we’ll see more Scamfields than not.