Public financing for sports stadiums never goes away

On a beautiful June Friday night in Cleveland when the Indians played the Twins, half the seats at Progressive Field were empty. (MPR Photo/Bob Collins)

There’s a reality in debates over public financing of sports stadiums that rarely gets acknowledged: You never really stop paying for them.

Cleveland, one of the models for how cities build new stadiums, is finding this out again.

When Jacobs Field was built, the county paid for the stadium (and the nearby arena) by taxing the usual suspects: cigarettes and alcohol. It was supposed to be a 15-year tax.

But then the city had a chance to get an NFL expansion franchise to replace the team that moved to Baltimore because the city wouldn’t build a new stadium, so the stadium authority built a new stadium and extended the tax in 2005. The city will make debt payments until at least 2027.

Those stadiums are now considered old by today’s standards. The football stadium is 14 years old and the Browns asked the city last fall for nearly $6 million for immediate repairs, even though the original deal required the city to make only $850,000 available each year. The team wanted six years worth of payments. While demanding that, the team’s owner sold naming rights for $6 million a year, none of which goes back to the taxpayers.

Cleveland collects about $13 million a year from sin taxes that expire in 2015. But now Progressive Field — the former Jacobs Field — is allegedly showing its age, and it doesn’t help that fans have abandoned the team after the ownership failed to invest in a product worth watching for several years. The team ranks near the bottom in Major League Baseball attendance and half the stadium’s upper deck is closed to ticket sales.

The sin tax that’s about to expire? Northeast Ohio civic leaders have hatched a scheme to extend it again to bail out three of the richest owners of three of professional sports’ worst teams.

Unlike Minnesota, voters will get a say.