Tomorrow, March 4th, 2008, a few Oklahoma City residents will go to the polls for a special election to decide whether or not to continue a 1% city sales tax so that the 5-year-old Ford Center can be renovated to include some luxury suites and inflatable bouncy things for kids. It is just about the most ridiculous usage of municipal taxpayer money I could imagine.
First of all, some background. The MAPS projects (Municipal Area Projects, or something) are funded by Oklahoma City sales taxes, and they have been around since the early 90's. In the past, they have generally been used for good rather than for evil, funding infrastructure improvements to downtown and certain city streets, and also providing funding for school improvements. A lot of good stuff has happened to Oklahoma City in the past 15 years because of the MAPS projects, including Bricktown, which, despite me making fun of it constantly, actually improves the desirability of Oklahoma City. MAPS was also the impetus behind the building of the sports facilities near Bricktown, including the AT&T Bricktown Ballpark, where the Oklahoma City Redbirds play, and the Ford Center, where the New Orleans Hornets played for two years. Both arenas are fan-friendly venues with great seating located within the walking corridor of Greater Bricktown, and the citizens of Oklahoma City generally approved of their construction even though we still have a perfectly cromulent arena across the street from the Ford Center.
The only winners in the whole Hurricane Katrina debacle were the basketball fans of Oklahoma City. Oklahoma City proved it could host a major league franchise and have better attendance numbers than other larger metropolitan areas, a fact we in central Oklahoma knew for years (higher than average percentage of sports fans + lower than average numbers of other cultural activities = sports teams should do well here). Those two years of success for the mediocre Hornets got the attention of the big brass of the NBA and of the big brass of private oil company barons like Clay Bennett, who now owns the Seattle Supersonics and is blackmailing that city in order to steer the team to the Sooner State. If Clay Bennett can't get taxpayers in one municipality to vote in favor of unnecessary arena improvements (Seattle), he will take the franchise to another municipality, one in which taxpayers will probably vote in favor of unnecessary arena improvements (Oklahoma City).
Now I know sports are generally stupid and frivolous, but I would have been in favor of building a city-owned arena like the Ford Center since Oklahoma City didn't have anything NBA-worthy at the time. I would probably even vote yes to renovate an old stadium with crappy bathrooms and bench seating if it was more than about 30 or 40 or 50 years old. I would not however be in favor of expanding the capacity of a stadium if the sports team that occupied it had created a larger demand than the city had supplied. It should be up to that team to expand and update the stadium at that point. And I'm certainly not in favor of using taxpayer money to put useless upgrades in a stadium that hasn't even lost it's new arena smell yet. The thing was just opened five years ago, and it was supposed to be NBA quality. The dirty secret is that it still is NBA quality. The proposed renovations aren't going to be felt during, say, basketball games, unless you happen to be a skybox donor.
Proponents of the ballot measure have spend $113,000 in an ad campaign to get the public to vote yes on the measure. Opponents have been fairly grass-roots and unorganized and clearly in need of some better web design. But I hope that the public will be able to see that $121,000,000 for some luxury suites, hot dog vendors, foam finger retailers and cushy executive offices won't make a bit of difference whether or not an NBA franchise relocates to Oklahoma City.