Surprise! Arts Center Predictions Flawed

The Washington Post reports that the financial projections for a government-funded arts center, Artisphere, in Arlington, Virginia, don’t seem to have panned out. Do they ever? The Post story sounds like all the previous stories about what happened after influential interest groups persuaded the taxpayers’ representatives to give them money on the basis of reams of economic projections:

The Arlington County-funded arts center, which opened Oct. 10 last year in the Newseum’s former space, projected it would have 300,000 visitors in its first year. As of the end of last month, it had hosted about 90,000. And the venue for art, theater, film, music and more, whose build-out cost $6.7 million, had to request an additional $800,000 to supplement the $3 million appropriated for its first annual operating budget.

“Our original business plan had very aggressive projections,” says Executive Director Jose Ortiz….“In terms of those expectations, no, we didn’t make those.”

“One of the projections was that every performance was going to be at capacity,” he says. “For a brand-new facility, that’s impossible.”

Deja vu for sure. These economic projections for subsidized stadiums are always vastly overstated. And the Cato Institute has published a number of studies over the years looking at the issue, mostly with respect to athletic stadiums. Dennis Coates and Brad Humphreys wrote in a 2004 Cato study criticizing the proposed subsidy for Nationals Park in the District of Columbia, “The wonder is that anyone finds such figures credible.”

In “Sports Pork: The Costly Relationship between Major League Sports and Government,” Raymond Keating finds:

The lone beneficiaries of sports subsidies are team owners and players. The existence of what economists call the “substitution effect” (in terms of the stadium game, leisure dollars will be spent one way or another whether a stadium exists or not), the dubiousness of the Keynesian multiplier, the offsetting impact of a negative multiplier, the inefficiency of government, and the negatives of higher taxes all argue against government sports subsidies. Indeed, the results of studies on changes in the economy resulting from the presence of stadiums, arenas, and sports teams show no positive economic impact from professional sports — or a possible negative effect.

In Regulation magazine, (.pdf) Dennis Coates and Brad Humphreys found that the economic literature on stadium subsidies comes to consistent conclusions:

The evidence suggests that attracting a professional sports franchise to a city and building that franchise a new stadium or arena will have no effect on the growth rate of real per capita income and may reduce the level of real per capita income in that city.

And in that 2004 study, “Caught Stealing: Debunking the Economic Case for D.C. Baseball,” Coates and Humphreys looked specifically at the economics of the new baseball stadium in Washington, D.C., and found similar results:

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. The net economic impact of professional sports in Washington, D.C., and the 36 other cities that hosted professional sports teams over nearly 30 years, was a reduction in real per capita income over the entire metropolitan area.

And yet millionaire owners and mayors with Edifice Complexes keep commissioning these studies, and council members and editorial boards keep falling for them. The Artisphere project was approved by the Arlington County Board in July of 2009. Was the county flush with money at the time? Well, not surprisingly, county officials were wringing their hands about the need to make cuts in late 2008, including “A detailed review of every service to determine what is mandated, what is essential to the community and what is discretionary.” In February 2009 the Post reported budget cuts, including police positions. Maybe the next time Arlington County – or any other state or municipality – needs to cut its budget, it might think about cutting subsidies for money-losing venues before going after police officers, firefighters, and math teachers.