David Hannum, a competitor of the showman P. T. Barnum, is generally credited with being the one who coined the phrase, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”
Hannum should be alive today. He would no doubt be amused that so many of the people we elect to public office turn out to be suckers who are easily fleeced by con artists and hustlers.
This is especially true when it comes to using taxpayers’ money to build stadiums for the owners of professional sports teams.
Time and again, these owners trick gullible politicians into coughing up huge sums of public money to build private sports palaces by promising they will earn back the investment through the creation of new jobs and economic development.
In reality, these usually turn out to be oversold promises. Publicly financed stadiums may make their wealthy owners even richer, but they seldom produce the jobs and development that politicians are assured will happen. These facilities also end up costing taxpayers much more than originally projected.
That happened several years ago when the Gwinnett County Commission agreed to build a stadium for a minor league team operated by the Atlanta Braves.
The commissioners were sold on the idea that building the stadium would spark the massive development of hotels, residences, retail outlets and office complexes in the surrounding area.
The cost of the stadium soared from an original projection of $30 million to $40 million, then to $59 million, and finally to $64 million. The development that was supposed to follow it never really materialized. The revenue that the park was supposedly going to generate to pay back the indebtedness didn’t happen, either.
Gwinnett’s taxpayers, on the other hand, will be on the hook for a long time to come.
Did other elected officials learn any lessons from this? They did not.
Earlier this year, Gov. Nathan Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed arranged for the use of $200 million in tax funds to pay for a retractable-roof football stadium for Falcons’ owner Arthur Blank. The projected cost of that facility has already increased by 20 percent — and they haven’t even broken ground for it.
More recently, the simpletons on the Cobb County Commission were told by a bunch of slick-talking corporate types that they should put up more than $300 million in public funds, a large part of that in property taxes, to pay for a new stadium for the Atlanta Braves.
The Braves, of course, produced the usual batch of numbers to persuade commissioners the project will bring all these wonderful new jobs and development to the property that abuts the proposed stadium.
I suspect that if you looked through the personal belongings of Cobb Commission Chairman Tim Lee, you would find a sales contract for the Brooklyn Bridge and a bag of magic beans. He fell for the Braves’ scheme while appearing to be totally unaware that they already pulled this off once before in Gwinnett County, a few miles to the east.
Just a few months ago, Cobb County was so destitute that the local school system was forced to eliminate 182 teaching positions and require school employees to take five days of furloughs.
Why worry about not having enough money to keep the schools open when you can spend $300 million on a new facility for the multi-billionaire who owns the Atlanta Braves? It’s much more important to build shiny new stadiums for private corporations than it is to educate our kids or pave our roads.
It’s fitting that the person who first introduced Braves executives to Cobb officials was state Rep. Earl Ehrhart (R-Powder Springs).
Ehrhart sponsored a bill several years ago that would have made a form of predatory lending legal again in Georgia. He was so determined to give loan sharks a helping hand that he brought the bill up for a floor vote twice, only to see his House colleagues reject it both times.
Ehrhart obviously knows a sucker when he sees one, which made him the logical person to get this deal rolling between Cobb and the Braves.
Cobb’s elected officials are naive enough to let themselves get fleeced, which means that the taxpayers will be soaked. It’s not the first time that’s happened in Georgia.
Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service at gareport.com that reports on state government and politics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.