During the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, a period when local governments and private sector businesses throughout the nation pulled back, this community, in an almost defiant gesture, moved forward with the single largest downtown development project in the city’s history. Completion of the KFC Yum! Center is part of the $1.2 billion in new construction in economic development linked to the University of Louisville since 2003.
That is astounding.
I am not certain any other city or university in America could have made it happen.
— University of Louisville President James Ramsey, “An Astounding Arena,” Special to the Courier-Journal, Nov. 8, 2010
If you haven’t read University of Louisville President Jim Ramsey’s editorial in today’s Courier-Journal, then, please, by all means go and read it if you want a good laugh re: the sickest joke in this doomed riverside city. If you’re lucky, maybe you will catch a glimpse of the raging disconnect that exists between Louisville’s economic reality and Louisville’s economic delusions, the latter espoused by elites any time somebody gives them a pen or a microphone.
In 630 words, the president of the state’s city’s flagship public university demonstrates amazing rhetorical flexibility and ignorance of current economic events, giving simultaneous rim-jobs to himself, U of L, the city’s power brokers and their patented unified theory of bullshit that keeps the Great Consuming Electorate from thinking too hard about the hidden costs of building a $238 million pleasure dome that merely creates low-paying, seasonal service sector jobs while Louisvillians a mile west of 9th Street lucky enough to be employed cannot afford market rate rents.
Judging from his editorial, Ramsey, who pulls in $456,132 per year plus bonuses, must not be very well-read. His assertion that Louisville is somehow daring and bold by using taxpayer money to build a sports facility amidst an economic recession isn’t only dead wrong, it’s par for the course in a country that no longer builds anything to benefit the masses: Constructing sports complexes with taxpayer money is the closest thing to a coherent urban infrastructure policy we have in these decrepit United States.
The Nation‘s Dave Zirin writes a lot about this, and highlights similar circumstances at UC Berkeley, where students have protested “32% tuition hikes, while the school pays football coach Jeff Tedford $2.8 million a year and is finishing more than $400 million in renovations on the football stadium.”
Or what about Miami, whose Major League Baseball team — The Florida Marlins — are debating a new publicly funded stadium, which was the subject of an episode of HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel?
Again, Zirin knocks the wind out of Ramsey’s oh no we didn’t! back-patting [bold emphasis mine]:
… Stadium construction [is] the grand substitute for anything resembling an urban policy in this country. Over the last generation, we’ve seen $30 billion in public funds spent on stadiums. They were presented as photogenic solutions to deindustrialization, declining tax bases, and suburban flight. The results are now in and they don’t look good for the home teams. University of Maryland sports economists Dennis Coates and University of Alberta Brad R. Humphreys studied stadium funding over 30 years and failed to find one solitary example of a sports franchise lifting or even stabilizing a local economy.
They concluded the opposite: “a reduction in real per capita income over the entire metropolitan area….Our conclusion, and that of nearly all academic economists studying this issue, is that professional sports generally have little, if any, positive effect on a city’s economy.” These projects achieve so little because the jobs created are low wage, service sector, seasonal employment. Instead of being solutions of urban decay, the stadiums have been tools of organized theft: sporting shock doctrines for our ailing cities.
What is truly “astounding” about this arena-worship is how deeply this community has buried its head into the sand, and what it says about our ability to honestly address the dire problems eating our neighborhoods alive. No matter that Louisville is experiencing record-high levels of child homelessness, or that another six Jefferson County Public Schools were named among Kentucky’s worst: Jim Ramsey can hear laughter on Main Street!
“…I stepped out the front door of the KFC Yum! Center and walked down the steps toward Main Street,” he writes (or dictates for a servant to write for him). “The electricity in the air was astonishing. The streets were busy, the sidewalks were bustling, and the sounds of music and laughter came from nearby restaurants. I looked upward at the beautiful nighttime Louisville skyline. Then I turned around and looked at the glow emanating from the arena.”
That this toaster oven has long been marketed to the public as a panacea for economic development — perhaps in direct response to the failure of civic and business leaders to actually create affordable housing or gainful inner-city employment opportunities — shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, especially considering that that marketing comes from arena figureheads (Ramsey) via the great enabler of Louisville’s wealthy faux-liberal establishment (The Courier-Journal editorial board), which wants you to believe every time somebody like Ramsey or David Jones or Bruce Traughber or [INSERT ELITE HERE] witnesses laughter on Main Street, an angel gets its wings.
But they’re not the only ones guilty of perpetuating false memes of economic “progress.”
Just last week, Gov. Steve Beshear and Congressman John Yarmuth, D-3, trumpeted a $100 million federal Housing and Urban Development loan to subsidize the stagnant Museum Plaza mega project and, by proxy, subsidize its wealthy private developers who’ve already sunk gobs of their own personal fortunes into it. The egregiousness of bankrolling this “Blade Runner” Lego set-from-hell with money from a federal agency whose primary goal is to provide permanent shelter for people without it is, apparently, lost on the politicians and the media in this city, who would rather salivate over the union construction jobs that will flow from Museum Plaza’s construction.
Even the city’s chamber of commerce, Greater Louisville, Inc., is in on the Big Lie, spending $8.3 million last year (including $832,659 on “program materials and meals”) while regional cities grow and expand their taxes bases, leaving Louisville in the dust at alarming speed. In fact, 42 percent of GLI’s 2009 expenditures were spent on itself, in the form of executive compensation and salaries.
Then there’s the $4.1 billion Ohio River Bridges Project, which, well … you can read our past coverage if you don’t already know how cancerous this project is for a myriad reasons.
All the while, businesses continue to pass Louisville by, and we are supposed to marvel at a basketball stadium?
According to Ramsey, the answer is a resounding “fuck yeah.”
And as I occasionally visit other cities and meet with educators from other parts of the nation, I am often asked about the arena.
The question I hear most often: “How did Louisvlle do it? How did the city navigate through the public debates, political terrain, financial challenges and recession to make it happen?”
I tell them that the answer may be difficult to understand unless you have experienced Louisville firsthand. I explain that Louisvillians understand the importance of the University of Louisville to their city and region and that without success on the athletic field, in the classroom and our research labs, Louisville would be a much different place.
When I encounter smarter people from better educated cities, they’re like, “How do you convince your city that $90,000 luxury suite boxes are good for the average citizen?”
I tell them that unless you know how dumb Louisvillians really are, then you don’t know how easy it is to get them to believe that subsidizing the over-glorified athletics department of a university most of them will never attend is a sufficient substitute for good governance.
And so, to the thousands of people who made this dream a reality, affording the common man the opportunity to pay for an overpriced Double Down sandwich and making him think he’s actually been done a favor: Congratulations. You’ve got the new mayor you deserve.