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Hook, Line, & Stinker 

Everyone loves the 49ers. But even love has its limits. Are taxpayers willing to subsidize millionaire owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr.'s dreams of a new stadium when economists say it's a bad deal

Wednesday, May 1 1996
Eddie DeBartolo Jr. -- multimillionaire owner of the San Francisco 49ers; shopping mall king; and racetrack, hotel, and casino proprietor from Youngstown, Ohio -- wants your money. Actually, he wants millions of it, even though he doesn't need it. But need rarely correlates with want when it comes to the superrich. Their logic of necessity is, well, bizarre at best.

This observation will become increasingly evident in the coming months as Mayor Willie Brown's inner circle confabs with the 49ers and decides how far to let DeBartolo reach his fingers into the city treasury in order to finance a new, state-of-the-art football stadium at Candlestick Point.

DeBartolo, who with his sister, Denise DeBartolo York, holds a half-billion-dollar stake in the country's largest real estate development company, wants San Francisco taxpayers and their cash-strapped municipal government to pony up somewhere between $25 million to $50 million to build the new stadium (cost estimate: $250 million) for his superrich players to play in. Factoring in the bait-and-switch hokum that usually attends municipal finance, the true amount of the city's proposed investment will probably be millions more. It's hard to calculate a figure now; talks between the city and the 49ers haven't even begun yet. But be confidant, the city's contribution will most likely be far more than $50 million. To be safe, double that number, and perhaps add a little more.

Accepting that premise, accept this: At a time when the Muni fleet is past retirement and driving maintenance costs ever skyward, when the port is lying fallow, when the library system is $6 million in the hole, when business taxes are prohibitively high, when the economy in all sectors is still struggling back from a decade of recession, San Francisco is considering carrying half the freight for a stadium that will create a negligible amount of lease revenue for city coffers -- less than what it makes now from Candlestick, the 49ers say -- but will help DeBartolo increase his profits, keep pace with players' skyrocketing salaries, and continue to build his commercial sports empire.

Also, know this: Few will raise a dissenting voice, especially the daily newspapers. They, more than anyone, have a stake in ballclubs locating and staying here. As Examiner sports writer Harry Jupiter said a few years ago: "It's no coincidence that papers put ball scores above the masthead. That sells papers."

But the 49ers' bid for city largess will test more than the integrity of local journalists. When DeBartolo's miner-forty-niner pick lands on the public treasury, it will also strike the city's rich vein of class-conscious populism. His demand for public subsidy will serve as the first true test of the city's neighborhood-bound progressives under a Brown mayoralty.

More than once over the last decade the city's fabled grass roots have struck out the Giants as the team grabbed at city money. Most notably, neighborhoods rose up against Art Agnos' proposed 1990 China Basin ballpark because it was financed with city money. (At least Art asked for a continuing percentage return on city money.) Three years later, when the Giants extracted a massive rent reduction on Candlestick from then-Mayor Frank Jordan and a supine Board of Supervisors, activists put the issue on the ballot. Realizing the power of an angry, populist-minded electorate, the owners sagely withdrew their request for lease breaks.

But this is Willie's town now. Forget DeBartolo and his money for a moment. Never before has the city's network of activists had to contend with a power broker like Willie Lewis Brown Jr., and he has as much to lose from the 49ers leaving town as the newspapers do.

Traditionally acquiescent to millionaires, the Board of Supervisors has now been totally co-opted -- or appointed -- by the mayor. So it's up to activists to scream bloody murder if DeBartolo makes a serious run at tax dollars. Banking on that, however, is as safe as betting on a long-shot nag at one of DeBartolo's racetracks.

Look at what happened with the Giants' stadium deal. Granted, they were smart to ask the city for painless tax increment financing and the infrastructure costs that attend development. After losing twice at the polls and once at the board, they had learned the lesson of millionaire hubris. But what this taught them was more sinister: Co-opt all the politicians and all the activists-cum-consultants. They will help you co-opt all the corrupt neighborhood clubs. It's an easy enough gig in a town like San Francisco where most activists stand like shiny merchandise on a Wal-Mart shelf, all with a price tag proudly displayed. With this greasy hegemony, you can get anything past uneducated voters.

But the Giants' success was driven by one more crucial element: Willie Brown. These days, no one dares stand up to Willie on stadiums or anything else. Some of the city's most prominent political players -- like affordable-housing advocate Calvin Welch and land-use attorney Sue Hestor -- are in Brown's kitchen cabinet. Will they and the hundreds of other people who are the counterweight to elected and corporate power in San Francisco stand up to a raid on the city's treasury?

We shall see.

As Mayor Brown enters negotiations with the 49ers, he will have to ask himself a central question: How does one measure the value of a sports team to a city? It's unclear now what financing instrument the city will employ, whether it will be bonds, revenues from naming the park, or General Fund monies. But ultimately, the mayor will be investing tax dollars. So he'll have to calculate the economic benefit -- the return on investment, if you will -- of pumping millions in public monies into a football franchise.

To his credit, Brown has made the first tenuous steps toward assaying this number, calculating this ephemeral value. Last month, his office sent out a request for proposal (RFP) for consultants who will help city officials craft a plan for a new stadium. Part of the consultants' job, as outlined in the RFP, will be to gauge revenue-generating and job creation potential of the new stadium.

About The Author

George Cothran


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