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Shreveport chases team at taxpayers' expense

In the latest iteration of a northwest Louisiana’s build-it-and-they-will-come fantasy, Shreveport has decided to go all in on attracting a minor-league basketball team by spending up to $30 million in taxpayer money. How this provides a net benefit to the taxpayer remains unexplained.

Mayor Ollie Tyler cajoled a City Council majority to approve of the courtship with the New Orleans Pelicans of the National Basketball Association. Many league teams sponsor a second-division club in the newly-renamed G-League, and, after an initial pitch by Tyler, the team has narrowed its choices to Shreveport and Pensacola.

Landing the squad would provide quite a boost for a metropolitan area that has seen a long list of failed minor league professional franchises in recent years. The 1990s turned out as the golden era of area pro sports, when Shreveport boasted teams in second-division football and basketball and in third-division baseball and hockey, plus a second-tier golf tournament.

But by the early 2000s only hockey remained. Even lower-tier baseball and football franchises would come, then go, and hockey finally gave out in 2011. Basketball at the lowest level possible briefly reemerged thereafter for a short while, but by 2016 the area had no professional teams left. Only professional horse racing at Louisiana Downs has remained throughout, although at a reduced level and subsidized by other forms of gambling.

This depopulation came as no accident. Economic growth in the metropolitan area has lagged the rest of the state, which lagged the rest of the country, since the turn of the millennium. The emergence of casino gambling sucked away discretionary income. Fairgrounds Field, one of the most modern venues when opened three decades ago, became mediocre by modern standards, while Hirsch Memorial Coliseum (not owned by the city) became more ancient, and the population base cannot support outsized Independence Stadium and Bossier City’s CenturyLink Center as homes for minor-league sports.

Tyler’s plan would address the out-of-datedness of the Hirsch and the too-large Center by having Shreveport build a new 3,200-capacity arena at the edge of downtown just north of the existing casinos. It would integrate with $100 million worth of commercial retail development she said would come from a consortium of private investors. Revenue bonds would take care of the arena’s cost.

More red lights than seen cruising down Texas Street come on about this project. While Shreveport police union chief Michael Carter might not have gotten it exactly right when he complained the plan would deprive personnel and material investments in the police department – most of that spending doesn’t come through capital outlay – he did hit home on a larger point: the idea would swipe bonding capacity from an ongoing over three-quarters of a billion dollars effort that lacks almost $300 million to complete. To make a fall 2018 deadline the arena would jump to the head of the queue ahead of a host of other infrastructure projects far more vital.

And how will the city pay off the bonds, which depend upon a revenue source probably around $2 million a year? The arena’s use plus any Pelicans’ payments simply won’t cover that. Bossier City already has shown how to lose taxpayers’ dollars on the Center on an annual basis, even when it had as an anchor tenant the most successful franchise in area history. Plus, what happens if the Pelicans pull the plug on the team before the end of the 20 or so years bond issue’s lifetime? New facilities won’t offset the disadvantages of insufficient community capacity to support a team.

Finally, why not use an existing 3,000-seat venue that hosts more than a dozen college basketball games a year, the Centenary Gold Dome? Parking there may be a little tight but it underwent a facelift a few years back, and Centenary with its recent financial problems could use the rent that would cost the Pelicans a fraction of what the city would have to foot for a new building, or the city even could promise to pay the rent as an enticement.

Why must an arena act as centerpiece of the new development? How can its presence be that necessary for the developers to make a profit? Not that, across the river, another outdoor shopping complex, the Louisiana Boardwalk, has made out so well; in recent years it fell into receivership and continues to leave a significant amount of space unleased despite Bossier City taxpayers footing over $20 million to build it a parking garage.

Of course, Shreveport went down this road before at the end of the last century by eating defaulted lending on the moribund Red River Entertainment District and in the early part of the millennium with its building of the unneeded Convention Center and even less-needed adjacent publicly-owned hotel, which last year together lost $3 million. Some people, like Tyler and the Council majority, never seem to learn to resist buying the shiny baubles with other people’s money.

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