Farewell to Booster Dreams: A Victory in New York

Across the US, urban industries provide key funds that local politicians use to get elected. In return, mayors typically organize their city governments to tax, to provide subsidies, to allocate city services, and to dispose of city-owned land for “economic development projects.” The chief beneficiaries of these projects are usually the leading local firms and their top executives. These deals require a public relations veneer since resources devoted to such projects are not used for housing, schools, parks, and so on. Thus, mayors spin ever rosier predictions that their pet projects will trickle down wondrous economic benefits for all.

These projects always encounter some resistance from local industries who stand to lose from them. Now, ever larger and more effective public resistance is emerging as well. In June this year, angry New York City residents made the difference in defeating Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s latest pet project, a $2.2 billion stadium on Manhattan’s west side. It was to be the new home of the New York Jets football team as well as the lure that would win for New York the 2012 Olympic summer games.

The proposed stadium project would have delivered city land at very low prices to local developers and their financial backers. It would have entailed an officially admitted $600 million cost to city and state taxpayers (most estimates added several hundred million more). It would have entailed traffic, environmental, and other costs impossible to estimate beyond knowing they would be huge. And there was no guarantee that it would convince the international Olympic committee to choose New York for 2012.

June 6, 2005 saw the New York State Legislature kill the plan. Huge mass citizen opposition persuaded New York’s Democratic leader in the State Legislature, Sheldon Silver, to block the Republicans championing the plan, Governor George Pataki and above all Mayor Bloomberg. This happened despite enormous sums spent to promote the stadium — drawn from businesses who lusted after the money to be made. The promotion won support from fans of the New York Jets and the Olympics. It also won support from those still vulnerable to the traditional claims that jobs and countless other “economic development” benefits that would “certainly” flow from the new stadium. The costly media hype focused, of course, on happy fans and jobs, jobs, jobs as if they — rather than the prospective profits bonanza — were the dominant drivers behind the deal. On the day of the Legislature’s decision, the public relations machine arranged the release of an official Olympic report which most local media interpreted to say that New York could get the nod for the 2012 Olympics only if it built this stadium.

The victorious opposition was heterogeneous, too. Some business interests associated with existing sports venues feared competition from a new stadium. Chief among these was the huge Cablevision corporation that owns “entertainment” properties in the New York area that would face increased competition from the proposed stadium. Cablevision’s properties include Madison Square Garden, Radio City Music Hall, the Hartford Civic Center, the New York Knicks, and the New York Rangers, among others.

Some business and business-supported organizations weighed in against the stadium plan as well. Late in May, the National Taxpayers Union organized and publicized a letter signed by 106 economists that said: “Most studies find that new sports stadiums do not increase employment or incomes, and sometimes have a modest negative effect on local economies. The reason appears to be that sports stadiums do not increase overall entertainment spending but merely shift it from other entertainment venues to the stadium.”

However, most observers doubted that the business opposition alone could succeed. What made the difference was massive resistance by the residents on Manhattan’s west side. They not only feared the added traffic, noise, and air pollution. They also showed a remarkable ability to understand, support, and make their own the arguments of the advocates of better (more socially beneficial) uses for city tax revenues and city lands. They demanded more affordable housing and public services (parks, schools, etc.) instead of the stadium.

In the course of the ultimately successful struggle, a new citizens’ tone arose that challenged the basic rationale of all such urban projects. Large numbers of New York residents rejected the projections of economic development benefits as at best temporary “and even those are questionable” in the word of Newsday editorial writer Raymond J. Keating. The stadium promoters’ glowing projections failed to swamp the opposition. They were seen by ever more people as public relations cover for the greed of project promoters and for the politicians who serve them.

For the future of New York and municipalities across the nation, something important emerged in the defeat of the west side stadium. It was the realization that all such projects have always depended ultimately on the relative strengths of those who stand to gain versus those who will pay dearly for the gains of others. The struggle is not about projects that can never “guarantee” ultimate economic benefits “for all.” Rather, one side wants the city to gamble billions of public resources on the possibility that a stadium might bring economic development that might trickle down to New Yorkers in general. The other side refuses to wait for questionable trickles; it wants instead the direct use of those resources for the general economic and social welfare of New York.

Equally important, New Yorkers showed a new sense that the long-term organization of those who stand to lose from the usual, profit-driven urban projects is their only viable strategy. If future large projects are actually to benefit residents and workers first and foremost, then they should no longer be approved on the basis of fantasies promoted by private profiteers. Indeed, the organization of those who have repeatedly lost out from big urban projects offers the best chance for coming up with new and different projects as well as the political strength to make them happen.

Rick Wolff is Professor of Economics at University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He is the author of many books and articles, including (with Stephen Resnick) Class Theory and History: Capitalism and Communism in the U.S.S.R. (Routledge, 2002).