DePaul gets an arena, but what does the community gain?

DePaul gets an arena, but what does the community gain?
Photo of Yankee Stadium by jvdalton/flickr.

Big urban projects like sports arenas often come with a time-worn narrative: They will create tourism and attract new jobs and a tidy return on investment. City support for the controversial DePaul  University basketball arena is no different.  A City of Chicago news release stated that the arena, which will be located near McCormick Place on the South Side and subsidized with tax increment financing, will bring in “hundreds of millions of dollars” annually.

But scratch below the surface and you’ll find a different narrative, according to research about publicly subsidized sports arenas in other cities. Think Yankee Stadium in New York, Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, and Reliant Stadium in Houston.  All were big capital prestige projects in urban areas with some investment from taxpayers.

On the ground, the DePaul arena has come under fire from Chicagoans who question why the city is spending $55 million in TIF funds on a stadium for a private university while closing 50 public schools—not to mention the long public housing waiting list for former residents of Chicago Housing Authority developments.  The new stadium will be near the site of the Harold Ickes Homes, which was torn down in 2010.

Most of these sports projects ended with overblown costs and nearby residents received little benefit, says Frank Guridy, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin who is writing a book on stadiums and U.S. urban politics. He calls the politics surrounding these projects the “stadium game.”

“It’s a really rough position for surrounding neighborhoods and usually for the taxpayers. Games are basically a boondoggle for wealthy interests and politicians,” says Guridy, who grew up in the Bronx near the old Yankee Stadium.  “All the research has demonstrated that whatever economic benefits come are seasonal, temporary, and outweighed by the potential cost of these stadiums.”

The new Yankee stadium, completed in 2009, was subsidized by New York City. For example, a parking lot for the stadium received $100 million in subsidies. The Bronx, where it’s located, has the highest percentage of low-income households of the city’s five boroughs.

Several years since the stadium opened, residents aren’t impressed. Small businesses have shut down,   and sanitation trucks servicing the stadium drive by communities in need of trash collection, Joyce Hogi, a South Bronx resident, wrote in an article for Moyers & Company, a weekly interview show.  “The bottom line is that the Yankees never have been – and still are not – good neighbors.”

Most research has shown that a sports facility alone won’t increase employment or raise income in an area. But the projects provide potential for activism, Guridy says.  For example, when New York City was renovating the old Yankee Stadium, groups in the South Bronx pressured the government into keeping a local hospital open and creating programs that provided counseling and financial assistance for youth.

On Nov. 8, Guridy will talk about “the stadium game” at Northwestern University. For more information, visit the event page.

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