Thursday, November 5, 2009

Chamber's CBJ study released; Is there another solution?

[DISCLAIMER: Like all entries in this blog, this is conjecture on my part.  It is, however, conjecture built off of actual events that happened in the last few days.  I have no special knowledge of the situation and only look at it as a very interested, outside observer.  If this doesn't come to pass, don't call me a total idiot, OK?]

First, a little proof that one hand isn't talking to the other in this town.  Yesterday in the weekly Columbus Dispatch "Puck Rakers" noon chat, Columbus Blue Jackets beat writer Aaron Portzline said this about the long-awaited Columbus Chamber (of Commerce) study regarding the Blue Jackets, Nationwide Arena and the long-term financial strength and stability of both:
[portzline] I've heard the "independent study" is close to being released, perhaps later this week.

That "later this week" was yesterday. Here's a link to the Columbus Chamber's press release, its study and the study's executive summary (the section that everyone reads and then says, "I've read the report," without having to read the report).  In addition, they offer a background piece on the Blue Jackets and Columbus' Arena District.  Fans of the CBJ and the economic vitality of the Arena District would be well-advised to check those links out.

That aside, I sat down to write this for an entirely different reason.  I opened up the front door this morning to grab my Columbus Dispatch, and three stories on the front page simultaneously hit me.  They were:

I'll readily admit that the rather simple logic of the situation evaded me until this morning.  I'm not a proponent of casinos nor gambling in general.  Gambling is bad news,  It is a regressive tax on the poor and, in the long run, will only serve to further strain our state's already-frayed social safety net.  So I never really considered the other impacts of casinos in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Toledo and Columbus.

Taking out the second of the three articles listed above, consider the other two.  First, the "Saving the Jackets" piece.  The timing of the report's issuance is rich; it's very safe to presume that the Chamber sat on it until after Tuesday's election.  This could be for two reasons, maybe more:
  1. The Chamber did not want to make the Blue Jackets any more of a political issue in the Columbus municipal elections than it had to be, especially considering the tough economic situation across the State of Ohio.  Ty Marsh, the Chamber's President, is a savvy character, so I'd mark this as a "yes."
  2. The Chamber wanted to see what happened to the statewide casino referendum, as the "Yes on Issue 3" website suggests that annual NEW revenue to Franklin County from casino activity would be $40.4 million, with $16.2 million of that going to Columbus directly.  
The language of the constitutional amendment says, "Tax collection, and distributions to public school districts and local governments, under sections 6(C)(2) and (3), are intended to supplement, not supplant, any funding obligations of the state."  This is new money for cities and counties, and the State is not allowed to lower its other obligations to them in recognition of this new funding stream.  And to the best of my understanding, there is no restriction in how the city and county can spend this money.  Manna from heaven, if you will, in the world of municipal finance.
    But wait! Didn't the "Saving the Jackets" article quote Marsh as saying that the necessary financial package would require $5 million for arena rent and $4 million for operating subsidy?

    And Columbus is in line to get $16.2 million in new monies from the casinos?  Franklin County another $24.2 million beyond that?


    My friends, I'm willing to bet that the Blue Jackets are going to make a serious play to fix their long-term financial problems through the new casino money.  (Pardon the pun.)

    Keep in mind that the "Casino Foes Vow To Fight" article suggests that the Columbus casino won't be on-line until the end of 2012.  That probably means that the Blue Jackets and their supporters have to develop a Phase 1 plan to get them from November 2009 to December 2012, and then a Phase 2 plan that would capitalize on the casino money.  That's where the Chamber report comes into play - to scrounge around the margins, get enough money together and provide a financial bridge to the casino cash.  (If you want a brief summary of the 19 options in the Chamber's report, click here.)

    Note that the report suggests bonding, or issuance of debt certificates, for (I think) three of the 19 options.  If you only had to issue debt paper for three years, knowing that the casino cash would pay it off reasonably quickly, wouldn't you go in that direction?

    Interesting times ahead in Columbus' capital city.  The report was supposed to present a solution, but it didn't.  And it made no mention of the casinos.  It's a new day, and hopefully something positive will come from this misguided vote by the increasingly desperate people of Ohio.

    [UPDATE: The Dispatch's Mike Arace presents a nuanced view of the situation in his column today.  Probably should have read this first, as our thought processes are not entirely dissimilar.]

    [UPDATE 2: CBJ president Mike Priest adds his two cents.  Kudos to the Dispatch for being on this issue so tightly now that it's out in the open again.]

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