There are no presidential or congressional races on the ballot and only two states are choosing new governors, but voters around the country will head to the polls today to pick their next mayor, city councilmen, and other elected officials. Those races don’t draw nearly the attention national elections do, but for local voters, they can have a much more direct impact on their lives. That’s definitely true when it comes to sports stadiums, given that massive public subsidies used to build them often leave cities and states — and their taxpayers — buried under mountains of debt that don’t come with the promised economic windfall.
In at least five cities today, there are mayoral races or ballot initiatives that could have substantial impacts on proposed or approved stadium financing projects as they move forward:
Pittsburgh: The owners of the Pittsburgh Steelers want the public to foot the bill for a $40 million upgrade that would add 3,000 seats to Heinz Field, where the Steelers have played since 2003. The city’s stadium and exhibition authority disagrees, and it counts the front-runner in the city’s mayoral election as a member. Councilman Bill Peduto, the Democratic mayoral nominee, ran ads during the election saying that he would provide money to youth programs, not to the Heinz Field project. Peduto is likely to become the city’s next mayor, and given that a judge dealt a major setback to the Steelers’ plans this summer, that might bring the city one step closer to getting the team to pick up the tab if it wants to expand its stadium.
St. Petersburg: Incumbent mayor Bill Foster is running for re-election in St. Petersburg, where Major League Baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays play. Foster has pushed the Rays, who want to build a new stadium, to honor their lease at St. Pete’s Tropicana Field, while his opponent, Rick Kriseman, wants to allow the Rays to look at sites in Tampa. Their positions aren’t all that different, since Kriseman also says he’ll force the Rays to pay for breaking their contract, which keeps them in The Trop until 2027, if they want to explore other options. Either way, it doesn’t seem voters really care. According to the Shadow of the Stadium blog, 60 percent of St. Pete voters say the stadium issue will have no sway in their vote, while nearly half are willing to let the Rays look. Major League Baseball has lobbied for a new stadium in Tampa, but whoever the next mayor is should beware: MLB commissioner Bud Selig made the same arguments about Miami that he’s making in Tampa, and that situation quickly devolved into a disaster.
Minneapolis: Voters in the larger of the Twin Cities will decide on a new mayor today as the plan for a new Minnesota Vikings stadium continues to unravel. The state and city approved millions of dollars in financing to replace the Metrodome in 2011, but the deal has already turned into a swindle, since gambling revenues meant to pay for it have fallen well short of projections. Vikings owner Zygi Wilf, meanwhile, has been wrapped up in fraud charges. There are 35 candidates on the ballot, and among the front-runners, there are clear differences in opinion about how to proceed. The biggest opponents of the deal are former councilman Dan Cohen, who said he wouldn’t honor the city’s $150 million up-front commitment, lawsuit be damned, and Betsy Hodges, one of the six council votes against the plan who still opposes the funding. Other candidates support it. The next mayor won’t be the only one working to remedy the problem — the state legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton (D) are involved too — but he or she will be most directly in charge of dealing with the mess the new Vikings stadium has already created and will only make worse in the future.
Houston: Voters in Houston will decide today what to do with the famous Houston Astrodome, the old baseball and football facility that hasn’t been used since the Houston Astros moved to a new stadium in 1999. A ballot initiative asks voters to approve $217 million in public bonds that would be used to convert the building into a massive new convention and exposition center; if it fails, the Astrodome will be destroyed. A coalition of citizens has called for saving the Dome, the world’s first multipurpose indoor facility once dubbed the “eighth wonder of the world.” The Astrodome opened in 1965.
New York City: By virtue of selecting a new mayor, New York seems less likely to end up with a publicly-financed soccer stadium. Michael Bloomberg supported a publicly-financed stadium in Flushing Meadows, Queens, before activists killed the idea, but neither Republican Joe Lhota nor his opponent, Bill de Blasio, are fans of a Queens stadium that would bring Major League Soccer to New York (the current New York team plays in New Jersey). But while the Queens idea seems dead, stadium supporters are now looking to the Bronx, and de Blasio, almost surely the city’s next mayor, wasn’t nearly as opposed to the idea of a stadium as others and doesn’t seem to have weighed in on that project.