Rendering Unto Jerry
Recently, a crowd of hardhat-clad dignitaries gathered in Arlington to watch the largest, heaviest girder being placed in the roof of the latest, greatest football stadium. Local television news showed Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones using a walkie-talkie to give the order to lift the arch onto the top of what he refers to as the “biggest stadium on Planet Earth.”
Jones also compared his new playground to Rome’s Coliseum – which I found highly appropriate, if unintentionally so. This whole taxpayer-funded circus puts me in mind of the bad old days when golden calves were worshiped on pedestals and the welfare of men, women, and children was sacrificed to appease the graven image. The welfare of about a thousand lower-income Arlington residents and dozens of local businesses has been sacrificed for our lust for football, the thrill of hosting a Super Bowl, and the gain of an “entertainment district.” They’ve even named the area surrounding the stadium “Glorypark.” And I ask: glory to whom?
My dislike of the new stadium and of Jones’ politics has nothing to do with my love for my Cowboys. I support the team – just not in a publicly financed stadium. As the structure rises, I’ve been thinking a lot about better uses for the $325 million Arlington is handing over to Jones. Perhaps some mass transit to reduce ozone and traffic congestion? Arlington is one of the few major metropolitan areas without some kind of public transportation. Ironically, we’re going to need that mass transit now more than ever, given the amount of potential traffic into the entertainment district and the lack of parking there.
But even the huge tax grab that the stadium represents doesn’t get down to the big issue. Cost aside, the new stadium is simply a case of eminent domain gone bad. Eminent domain refers to an entity (usually government) taking privately owned property for public use. The big stick of eminent domain used to be wielded to make possible the widening of roads or construction of a public hospital – things clearly for the greater public good. But over the past two decades, the definition of “public use” has broadened uncomfortably.
Does anyone remember the last big local sports welfare case of eminent domain? A certain baseball team, owned by a certain future president, claimed that eminent domain applied to their baseball field because it was “public use.” There’s precious little public use of that property, although you can use the parking lot for free on a non-game day … if you happen to be going to Six Flags, don’t feel like paying $20 for parking, and are willing to chance having your car towed. While the part of Arlington euphemistically referred to as the entertainment district is not the most scenic, people did live and work there. They owned houses and businesses. Those houses and businesses apparently stood in the way of Jones’ idea of progress.
The City of Arlington “compensated” the property owners for their losses. But there’s a lot of fine print in the eminent domain decree. Example: The city paid relocation expenses only if displaced residents bought houses within a 50-mile radius of their former homes. Most of the houses that the city seized to make room for the stadium were valued at less than $150,000 – good luck finding a comparable house at that price within 50 miles. And while the homeowners may have been compensated at fair market value, they also had to pay taxes on their moving-expense compensation, which puts even more of a burden on people who can least afford it. And let’s not even talk about those low-income renters whose apartments were demolished. On the other hand, Arlington doesn’t like acknowledging that poor people actually live here – so maybe it was part of the plan. It’s the opposite of the Field of Dreams: If you destroy the low-income housing, they will go away.
Eminent domain in this case is laughable. The private owners of this stadium will control all ticket, parking, and concessions income for all events. The city is not making a dime on this revenue, and the stadium is not the same thing as expanding a highway, building a hospital, or any other legitimate public use. I wonder what Arlington will buy with the $2 million in “rent” Jones will pay. It will take decades of rent before we get our tax dollars back, even assuming the city receives increased revenue from all the hotels, restaurants, and dens of iniquity that are expected to be built nearby. By then, Jones (or whoever owns the team) will have gone on to idolize bigger, shinier things.
Jones and the folks in charge at Arlington city hall might want to review their Good Book on a few points. It’s very clear – we shall not make for ourselves idols, whether those idols are in the shape of another deity or a large spaceship-looking building with a giant retractable roof. We shall not covet another’s property. That includes this particular use of eminent domain.
Freelance writer Laurie Barker James has lived in Arlington since she was nine.