Indy’s Super Bowl: Another Potemkin Project?

January 2, 2012

For the use of the membership only (705 words).

Potemkin |pəˈtɛm(p)kən| |pəˈtɛmkɪn| — adjective (informal), having a false or deceptive appearance, esp. one presented for the purpose of propaganda. ORIGIN 1930s: from Grigori Aleksandrovich Potyomkin (often transliterated Potemkin), a favorite of Empress Catherine II of Russia, who reputedly gave the order for sham villages to be built for the empress’s tour of the Crimea in 1787.

There’s no more important a story, and it is unreported — on the news pages, at least. The headline would look something like this: “Local Economic Development Officials Don’t Have a Clue — And Never Did.”

Some of us thought in the early days of rebates, downtown renovation, stadium boosterism and every other “build-it-and-they-will-come” dream, there was a plan that hung by at least an economic thread. Not anymore.

In my town, officials bet “on the come” for stadium complexes, subsidized hotels, condominiums and convention centers against the odds and without logic. All of them turned out to be Potemkin villages, erected even as we villagers expressed skepticism about the economic integrity of such politically convenient projects.

On my desk is the spring 2005 issue of The Indiana Policy Review. Featured is the work of Ron Reinking, a Fort Wayne certified public accountant and an adjunct of our education foundation. Reinking put his reputation, his career and his property at risk detailing the fiscal misrepresentation and omission surrounding his city’s ballyhooed convention center and similar projects. In the subsequent seven years, his predictions proved true.

Reinking’s expert assessments were filed away by editors, party leaders, elected officials and prosecutors — everyone paid to protect our community from such scam and scheme.

Another adjunct scholar, Fred McCarthy, for years has been asking embarrassingly pointed question about dozens of these boondoggles in Central Indiana through his blog, IndyTaxDollars. McCarthy, although a respected former Chamber executive and business lobbyist, is not in the email address books of Indiana’s top news hounds. Nor has he been asked to meet with the editorial board for years. And the publisher never seems to wonder why McCarthy has been so right over the years and her official and oft-quoted sources have been so wrong.

There have been other voices, particular that of our regular columnist, Dr. Cecil Bohanon, an economist who thoroughly debunked the myths of a professional sports franchise more than a decade ago. But let’s move on.

So how is that special public-private project working out in your town? Notice that nobody important at city hall wants to talk about it anymore? Or how the business “leaders” no longer cite those rosy economic forecasts commissioned from that officially cozy consulting firm? And that your newspaper has quit publishing those smarmy “good-job” updates?

“The surest sign that taxpayers should be leery of such public investments is that officials have changed their sales pitch,” writes Steve Malanga for the opinion page of the Wall Street Journal. “Convention and meeting centers shouldn’t be judged, they now say, by how many hotel rooms, restaurants and local attractions they help fill . . . The new metric — a city’s amorphous brand value — is little more than a convenient way to ignore the failure of publicly sponsored facilities to live up to exaggerated projections.”

Get ready, Indianapolis, to hear just that explication when the cost-benefit analysis is done on Super Bowl XLVI.

Malanga, detailing such disappointments across the nation, quotes Boston Globe editorial columnist Jeff Jacoby: “The whole thing is a racket. Once again the politicos will expand their empire. Once again crony capitalism will enrich a handful of wired business operators. And once again Joe and Jane Taxpayer will pay through the nose. How many times must we see this movie before we finally shut it off?”

Arthur Foulkes, writing for the Terre Haute Tribune editorial page, chose this topical heading for his Jan. 1 column, “Stop Trying to Help Us — It doesn’t Work.” Foulkes knows that growth happens naturally “when people are free to make their own decisions, their own mistakes, their own profits.” He uses as illustration, Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect, a man who had several decades in Spandau Prison to reflect on his particular downtown renovation — pre-war Berlin.

Unlike modern planners and their political sponsors, though, Speer could admit a mistake. “Whenever, nowadays, I look through the plans and the photos of the models (for Berlin), even these varied parts of the avenue strike me as lifeless and regimented,” Foulkes quotes from Speer’s memoirs. “The entire conception was stamped by a monumental rigidity that would have counteracted all our efforts to introduce urban life into this avenue.”

Foulkes concludes with a zinger: “Speerʼs father, also an architect, summed up the situation nicely when his son showed him the plans for Berlin. Looking at the vast models and drawings for a new German capital, Speerʼs father stated simply: ‘Youʼve all gone completely crazy.’”

You must assume that’s why there’s no front-page story.

Craig Ladwig is editor of The Indiana Policy Review.


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