There is a pivotal scene in the 1984 mockumentary classic “Spinal Tap”—the comic history of a band’s slow decline from second-rate psychedelic hucksters to fourth-rate thud-rock has-beens. The band’s members are discussing ideas for rebounding from yet another career low, when someone roars, “I’ve got it!—Let’s bring back ‘Stonehenge!!’” (an atrocious rock opera Spinal Tap had originally recorded a decade earlier).
It’s a scene that has stuck in my mind ever since a day in early 2006. I was returning to Birmingham after an afternoon in Chattanooga, during which the Executive Director of that city’s Community Foundation had spent nearly two hours showing-off his city’s many accomplishments over the past decade—while also pointing out about a half-dozen civic projects underway; all as large or larger than, for instance, the Railroad Park, a project which (IMHO) offers more potential for impacting our own City Center’s quality of life than any proposed in decades.
When I reached Birmingham radio reception range, one of the evening’s top news stories involved yet another effort to garner support for the domed stadium originally proposed well over two decades ago.
Which is when it hit me: The dome has become Birmingham’s own personal “Stonehenge”. Much as it’s been romanticized as Future Birmingham’s proverbial grail, it was a starry-eyed idea in the first place. And if you ask most taxpayers, it’s one that has decidedly not improved with age. Consider, for starters, the cost—which is currently projected to be $530 million. Assuming Birmingham manages the all-but-unprecedented task of staying on budget, that price is only the beginning. Here’s where it could get really scary.
According to the Wall Street Journal’s December 29 Yield Curve Scale chart, 20-year municipal bond rates for AA-Rated cities (which, amazingly, is Birmingham’s rating, according to acting Mayor Roderick Royal) were 4.87%. Plug the principal and interest into Bloomberg’s online Mortgage Calculator, and suddenly the price tag jumps to roughly $830,355,090. And that’s not counting all the fees involved in originating and issuing the bond—not to mention the additional tab for operating, maintaining and (equally important) marketing the facility, once it’s actually open.
All of which could easily add-up to a total taxpayer burden of $900 million—or an average annual payout of $45 million over the next 20 years. Now, consider arguably the single biggest revenue-producing event that a dome-equipped Birmingham could hope to attract: The SEC Championship game—which seems to be doing quite well in Atlanta, thank you very much, and last year generated an economic impact of $25 million. In a town where there are a lot more places to spend money than Birmingham. And remember, “economic impact” doesn’t remotely equate to profit.
Forget the obvious question (Namely: How’s the dome ever going to pay for itself?). Proponents have long claimed its primary draw will be as a convention destination. Forget the various reports of declining tradeshow attendance in cities across the country—including a lot of towns (most notably Las Vegas) light-years up the convention / tourism food chain from Birmingham. Where’s the wisdom in spending 900 million taxpayer dollars on something we hope will be used primarily by folks who don’t even live here? And where’s the direct impact on our own quality of life?
Place that potential $900 million tab against the $12 million public outlay for the Railroad Park—which will feature 10 acres of open lawn, walking trails and shaded pavilions, in addition to a lake and an open-air amphitheatre. That makes the dome 75 times more expensive than a project we can all but guarantee will be used by folks who do live here.
Put another way, how much more could Birmingham benefit from 74 other projects as appealing as the Railroad Park, than we would from a single dome? Here’s an even better idea: Let’s identify maybe a half-dozen other practical civic projects, save the taxpayers $816 million, and file the dome—once and for all—in its rightful place: Alongside “Stonehenge” in the cutout bin.
Originally published in the Birmingham News Editorial section, Sunday January 3, 2010