Columns » Max Brantley

NLR's field of dreams

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The conceptual drawings for a new minor league baseball park in North Little Rock are exciting. An up-to-date park with a city skyline as a backdrop would be a magnificent addition to the city. It would be more exciting still if new residential and commercial development took hold in the neighborhood. The fact that North Little Rock will vote in August on a sales tax to pay for this stadium illustrates the city’s superior form of government. The mayor-council government gives equal voice to residents in every ward and offers a huge opportunity for a politically adept mayor with big ideas. That’s Pat Hays, who has accumulated significant power and goodwill during a long tenure. We’re glad we live in Little Rock at this moment, however. While we favor the downtown of either city for the ballpark, we buy most of our groceries and hamburgers in Little Rock. The tax on those commodities is already high enough. You knew it would come to this. There was talk of stealing school tax money through a Tax Increment Finance District to pay for the stadium. But there’s no solid prospect of private development to throw off the needed tax revenue. There will be naming rights and skyboxes, but everyone knows these things produce a relative pittance toward construction costs. No, it had to be a sales tax increase. Another penny for two years. Two years of a 9-cent tax on groceries, a 12-cent tax on burgers and a 33-cent tax on a dollar shot of Cuervo at happy hour. What’s missing is the private sector, as usual, save Warren Stephens’ land donation. Taxpayers bought the land for the Clinton Library. Tax money paid most of the cost of the River Market. Alltel Arena, ditto. Here we go again. In cities across the country, new minor league ballparks have been financed repeatedly by financial interests, such as Auto Zone in Memphis and Procter and Gamble in Jackson, Tenn. Private contributions are not always for marketing purposes. Sometimes they have no benefit at all for the giver, such as the expected increase in the value of Stephens land surrounding the baseball stadium. In Chattanooga, wealthy families picked up most of the tab of a stunning riverfront redevelopment as a pure philanthropic gesture. We continue to wish for more of that here. Be careful about swallowing Mayor Hays’ belief that the stadium will trigger an economic renaissance. Alltel Arena, which has maybe double the events and three times the attendance the ballpark expects in a year, barely breaks even on operating expenses. And look around Alltel. Do you see any new construction after almost six years? As it happens, the greatest Alltel beneficiaries might be the bars and restaurants across the river in the River Market neighborhood, packed before and after many big arena events. Their patrons will be free riders on the stadium tax. No politician ever wants to talk about the specific benefits of a sales tax increase because they’re impossible to prove. But it’s a question worth asking before the August vote. On aesthetics alone, I’d vote for this project if I lived in North Little Rock. But the unfairness of the sales tax and the disproportionate burden it places on people least able to afford a night at the ball park are hard to ignore. Given the Alltel example down the street, maybe the mayor should stick with aesthetics.

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