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Rick Maese: A few loose ends to tie up for that arena

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It's handy and it's dandy. Easy to fold and easy to hold. When you see your favorite politician, pass it on. When you see your local sports team owner, be sure to share. Because here it is for the very first time: The definitive, dead-on, no-excuses checklist.

If your city can't check off each of these items - ahem, pay attention, Baltimore - then maybe it should think twice before throwing public money at a sports arena or stadium.

1. Is private money available?

Here's a new formula: If Team Owner is worth anywhere in the neighborhood of two times the cost of a proposed arena, let him sign the check.

Public municipalities have been in the sports business so long, we take for granted that taxpayer dollars are essentially used to subsidize rich owners.

These owners are given a monopoly on the marketplace and then use your money to run their business. And when they don't get their way, they whine and complain and hold a city hostage. See Irsay, Robert.

Or if you want a more recent example, take a gander down south. Washington used $611 million in public money to pay for Nationals Park. Claiming the stadium isn't sufficiently complete, the Nationals have withheld more than $3.5 million in rent.

What's a city to do? Can't exactly evict the tenant, can you?

2. What's your crime rate?

Here's an irrefutable fact: Dead people cannot visit sports arenas. Shouldn't a city's priority be spending money on keeping people safe?

Here's another rule of thumb: If your crime stats place your city within three places of Detroit, you should probably try to divert more money in the way of public safety.

(Detroit, by the way, has relatively new, publicly financed football and baseball stadiums. Think quality of life has improved there much?)

In Baltimore, city police have counted 118 homicides this year, which is actually a big improvement over last, when the death toll hit 282. The truth is, the homicide rate is basically the same as it was in 1990.

If a new arena helps in this area, then let's build two. If it doesn't, then let's file away the blueprints for a sunnier day.

3. Are you educating children?

Yes, let's spend money on sports. Let's give it to middle schools and high schools and give children an incentive to stay in the classroom. Let's give them new equipment and uniforms and places to play. Parks and Recreation and community centers are in constant need.

Consider: the graduation rate in city schools is between 40 percent and 60 percent, the state school board has labeled five schools as "persistently dangerous," one-third of Baltimore students fail the required reading test and nearly half fail the math portion.

Of those who manage to attend college, only 15 percent manage to graduate in five years.

The last thing we need is to build Baltimore's children another building they can sleep behind when they're old, uneducated and homeless.

4. What's your money really buying?

In selling the public on a new arena, they're basically putting a fancy paint job on an old jalopy. They'll try to sell you on the NBA and the NHL, but let's be realistic.

What you're really buying: indoor soccer, occasional concerts, basketball tournament here and there and, if you're lucky, maybe a minor-league hockey team or - huzzah! - an Arena League football team.

Anything more is a pipe dream.

5. Do your roads allow fans to even visit the stadium?

Most Baltimore residents might - might - visit the arena a half-dozen times a year.

We navigate our roadways, though, every day. Or at least we try to, dodging potholes the size of basketballs and cracks that could house a family of raccoons.

According to one report, the Baltimore-area roads are seventh-worst in the nation; 49 percent of our roads have been ruled unacceptable. Even the city estimates that 35 percent could use some work.

Wouldn't you hate if Baltimore's NBA team was aboard a team bus that hits a pothole and gets a flat on the way to the fancy arena?

6. How's the neighborhood?

Not sure if you noticed, but last week, a manhole downtown erupted like Old Faithful. There was a subterranean fire raging beneath Charles Street, and it not only shot flames above ground but also highlighted the condition of the unseen network of wires and pipes that keep Baltimore ticking.

The city's infrastructure has gone from the senior citizens' home to the hospice, and if we don't do something soon, tax dollars might better spent on steel umbrellas - to protect us from falling manhole covers.

It's not just infrastructure, either. Does anyone else think those 16,000 vacant homes are somewhat of an eyesore?

There are so few things that really tie a community together, that give us shared identity and common cause. Certainly, sports teams do this. It's a great meeting place for every group and faction of a city.

But there are others. Places like a school or a neighborhood park. Or ideas like public safety and fiscal responsibility.

It'd be great to have a shiny new arena.

It'd be nicer if everything else was in order and we could conscientiously devote our time and energy on such a project.

So how many checkmarks did you put on the list? Enough to justify a new sports arena built on the back of taxpayers? Or just enough to realize that simply creating the checklist felt pretty taxing?

rick.maese@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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