Monday, January 19, 2009

Boondoggles and Migration

Before I went to the local Steelers bar yesterday, I came across a reference to a Wall Street Journal article that offers a negative critique of Pittsburgh. A commenter at my blog also recommended the read and Chris Briem puts in his two cents here. I had a hard time getting past the subtitle, "There's a reason so many Steeler fans have left Pittsburgh." Jerry Bower goes on to point out the folly of spending public dollars on the stadiums where the local teams play:

If there ever was a time to crow about the wonders of rebuilding a city around a professional sports team, this would be it. Three of the four teams remaining in the play-offs hail from cities -- Baltimore, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh -- that in recent years spent billions rebuilding their downtowns around pro sports facilities and other community "anchors."

Except that there's a problem. The teams might be competitive, but the cities definitely are not. All three continue to shrink in population, and have stagnant job markets and crumbling public schools.

I sympathize with Mr. Bower's position. I wasn't thrilled when the Pens held Pittsburgh hostage and eventually managed to wrangle a new stadium from a city that is essentially bankrupt. But bringing up the tired story of a shrinking population greatly diminishes the article's credibility. The spending would still be a boondoggle in Seattle or Phoenix (the one playoff city to escape Mr. Bower's wrath).

In Seattle, of course. That city has gained population while Pittsburgh lost it. Steelers bars are the visible cultural artifact of a kind of economic diaspora. People in those bars are the refugees who looked at high taxes, union dominance and lousy schools and voted with their feet. They can still root for their favorite team -- from Raleigh, North Carolina. You go South or West to get your bread. The circuses can be watched on cable.

I have a hard time taking the cranks seriously when they spew such nonsense. Carrying on about the population decline is also a form of silly civic pride and the money spent on plugging the brain drain is just as wasteful as tax payers footing the bill for a new stadium. I recommend that Mr. Bower actually look at the out-migration rates for the cities he celebrates and compare them with Pittsburgh's before going on his next tirade.

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