Why the New Stadium Won’t Save Downtown East, and Why That’s a Good Thing

Much of the discussion leading up to the Great Stadium Decision of 2012 had to do with whether or not a new Minnesota Vikings stadium in downtown Minneapolis would be the economic boon that downtown so badly needs in order to attract the 70,000 new residents the city hopes to house there by 2025 (not to mention the many businesses those residents would bring with them).

Regardless of where you came down on the issue, the debate is now settled. The Vikings will be building a new stadium inside the city limits, more or less directly on top of the old Metrodome. What is yet to be settled—and what is perhaps even more critically important than the decision to stay in Minneapolis itself—is what development around the stadium might look like, and how a stadium can be incorporated into an urban environment that must also be both economically productive and appealing to the potential visitors and residents who will use the space during the 355 days a year in which the Vikings are not playing football.

The first thing that it’s important to establish is that development will not magically occur simply because a new stadium pops up (see the sea of parking lots surrounding the Metrodome for proof of this fact). Furthermore, the evidence (at least the evidence not funded by franchise owners) overwhelmingly suggests that sports teams and stadiums do not provide the kind of economic boost to cities that we’re often told they do. According to many economists [PDF], sports franchises actually lead to a net decrease in a city’s per capita wages on average.

This happens for a number of reasons. First, public money spent on building the stadium (a form of monetary stimulus) is money that might otherwise be used to fund projects that increase productivity more significantly over the long term—infrastructure, education, public safety, or attracting businesses to the area. (This trade-off is often called the “substitution effect.”) Similarly, because families have finite entertainment budgets, dollars spent at the stadium are not necessarily “new” dollars but rather dollars that are simply diverted away from other entertainment businesses—movie theaters, restaurants, etc.—whose revenues are much more likely to remain in the local economy than those of major sports franchises.

In short, stadiums are not economic saviors. Which—if you’re in favor of making downtown a more attractive and prosperous place to live and work (in addition to a great place to catch a game)— should come as good news.

Because once we stop insisting that the stadium will be the savior of Downtown East, we can finally get down to the business of making downtown a place in which people actually aspire to live, rather than one in which they simply aspire to tailgate.

This means (among other things): doing away with much of the surface parking in this area in favor of above- and below-ground garages (anyone who thinks doing so would discourage tailgaters has no idea just how resourceful and determined tailgaters are); increasing frequency of transit to and from downtown on game days; instituting policies that promote mixed-use development in the areas surrounding the stadium; limiting the amount of “dead space” between the stadium and its surroundings; and trying to cultivate a balance of retail and restaurants that cater to an audience beyond Vikings fans. (It bears repeating: the Vikings play just ten home games a year, leaving 355 football-less days in which this space must still be economically productive.)

Whether you’re a football fan or not (and I am), a downtown that’s lively, vibrant, and prosperous year round seems like a goal worth aiming for. If it happens to get a bit livelier on Sundays, well, I’m sure no one will complain.

 

Chris Keimig

About Chris Keimig

Chris Keimig is a writer and teacher living in Minneapolis. He's the founder of the blog Empty Lots, a documentary photo project that examines Twin Cities transit and urban planning issues through the lens of the city's excess parking infrastructure. He earned his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Minnesota, where he also studied transit planning in his spare time. Follow him on Twitter: @chriskeimig