On Tuesday December 4, 2007, Sedgwick County hosted the formal groundbreaking ceremony for the downtown Wichita arena. While local government leaders and news media hailed the event as a transforming event in the history of Wichita, this writer does not share their enthusiasm.
The building of this arena is government interventionism at its worst. Stakeholders in the arena, such as Bob Hanson of the Greater Wichita Area Sports Commission, demonstrate the harm of rent seeking, as they seek to obtain, at taxpayer expense, a large and expensive playhouse for their pleasure. Supporters dressed their arguments for the arena in the language of public goods and economic development. But Henry Hazlitt and others have explained that the money spent on the arena is money that wasn’t spent somewhere else, with the attendant loss of jobs and economic activity somewhere else. (See my review of Economics in One Lesson and Prepare for Sales Tax-Induced Job Effects Now, also printed in The Wichita Eagle.) As local governments consider an expensive plan for development of the surrounding area, that money — just like the money collected through the sales tax — is money that citizens won’t be spending somewhere else of their own choosing.
Even the most basic economic arguments given for the arena were flawed. I found out that the estimated operating budget for the arena was defective, as officials were not aware of, or did not care to disclose, the proper government accounting standards the arena would be required to use. (See Arenas’ Financial Statements Not Complete and WSU Study on Downtown Wichita Arena Not Complete.)
Government, too, is not qualified to build and own assets like this arena. Consider the status of the Kansas Coliseum, which having opened in 1978 is only 29 years old. Yet three years ago we were told that it required extensive renovation for continued use, that poor condition being the stick used to promote the downtown arena. (Century II, not much older, is often described in the same terms.) So can you spot the irony in Sedgwick County Commission Chairman Dave Unruh’s statement at the groundbreaking? “I think probably most everyone here…will have a story they can tell their children and grandchildren on how they had a part in changing the profile and character of our community.” If this new arena suffers the same fate as the Coliseum, one generation from now we’ll be building another.
Further, government and its officials are not allowed to campaign for the arena as they did. Kansas Attorney General Opinion 93-125 states: “…public funds may not be used to promote or advocate the position of a governing body on a matter which is before the electorate.” If you examine news media accounts of the debate before the election in November 2004, you will see that our local government officials and their quasi-governmental surrogates were working in full force for the passage of the arena and its tax, in direct violation of this regulation. See Government Funds Promoting Downtown Wichita Arena.
Finally, by building a government arena, we lose the opportunity to have a privately-owned arena. A private arena, you say? Wouldn’t it have to be owned by greedy capitalists, only seeking to exploit our town just to earn a profit? But in the absence of government coercion or intervention, a business can earn a profit only by meeting customers’ needs, and doing that efficiently. Governments and their bureaucrats do not have this powerful motivating factor. The absence of the computation of profit and loss means that we will never know whether the resources spent on the arena were spent wisely. See A Public or Private Downtown Wichita Arena, Which is Desirable?.