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The Philadelphia Daily News

DEAR CAMDEN,

It's not that we don't feel miffed that the 76ers are moving their practice facilities and office operations across the river to your town - last we checked, they called themselves the Philadelphia 76ers - but we know that you're not in the habit of getting much good news, so we wish you well. As part of an interconnected urban ecosystem, we really want your city to do well. We suffer when you suffer.

Now, could you step aside and let us speak to New Jersey?

New Jersey: Hasn't Camden suffered enough? Why are you telling them - and your taxpayers - that the $82 million you're shelling out to get the Sixers to agree to the move is an investment that will pay off in jobs and other economic benefits totaling $76 million over 35 years? (Cute, how you managed to come up with "76" as the magic number. And convenient that few of you will be around in 35 years to report on whether that actually happened.) The 250 jobs that the Sixers organization brings will cost $328,000 each.

Bad enough that you're doing this when your budget has a whopping deficit, and your credit rating is at risk of being downgraded because Gov. Chris Christie wants to balance the budget by shifting billions from the pension fund.

But you're subsidizing a sports team for a practice facility that will be closed to the public, and has little chance of leading to much other development. Usually, cities who give away the store for sports teams at least get stadiums out of them.

Back in 2001, for example, Philadelphia spent $1 billion to help the Phillies and Eagles build their sports complex. We objected at the time - and we continue to object to the notion that rich sports teams need public welfare, when our schools go begging each year.

The Philadelphia deal was long ago; you should look at a more recent example, in Chester: $80 million in public money to build a soccer stadium that promised to revive ailing Chester with those familiar words sprinkled with magic fairy dust: Jobs. Entertainment complex. Retail. Waterfront Promenade.

That was in 2008. Today, the stadium stands surrounded by . . . not much. Chester is still so strapped that it's considered taxing ticket sales and parking. And here's the kicker: Owners of the Union soccer organization are complaining that Chester is trying to squeeze them and that such taxes would be "catastrophic" to their business.

The point is, it's tempting to lie down with sports teams. But that trophy can be expensive - and doesn't always lead to warm friendships. (Philadelphia had an eight-year dispute with the Eagles to get luxury-box revenue that the city said the team owed; the city finally settled for $3 million.)

The larger point is that tax subsidies for sporting venues rarely deliver on the glittering promises made when the deals are cut. Given the new realities of our economy, it's time for states and municipalities to start looking at wiser public investments.

New Jersey, it's like you spent money you didn't have on a fancy hat - when your family was starving for real nutrition.

June 12, 2014

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