As the Cowboys and NFL start a new season, Arlington’s fields of dreams are paying off
With $1 billion in stadium subsidies, the city has helped create a destination that attracts 17 million visitors a year.
If you build it, will they come?
That question has loomed over Arlington for almost 30 years, starting when local voters approved a sales tax increase in 1991 to help fund a new ballpark for the Texas Rangers.
Arlington voters stepped up again in 2004, approving more taxes for a Dallas Cowboys stadium. And in 2016, they agreed to pay for a new Rangers facility with a retractable roof.
Taken together, the public contributions to the sports stadiums total nearly $1 billion, and that’s without adjusting for inflation.
So what did the big spenders get? A strong increase in tourism, solid growth in the tax base, a stream of varied events that often attract huge crowds, and a new narrative around a city that was once fighting to remain relevant.
Everyone knows where Arlington is now, and what it’s all about.
"It's pretty evident in Arlington: We make money from sports," said Arlington Mayor Jeff Williams.
This weekend, as the National Football League season starts and the Cowboys mark the 10th anniversary of the opening of AT&T Stadium, Arlington has become a favored destination — and its giant public investment appears to be paying off.
Whether the return on that investment is sufficient is another question, and one that sports economists routinely reject. In one survey, over 85% of economists favored eliminating subsidies to professional sports teams. In another poll, economic experts said stadium subsidies would cost taxpayers more than the benefits they generated.
"An economist might ask, 'Of all the things my city could do with $500 million, is a sports stadium subsidy my best option?' " wrote a researcher for the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis in 2017.
He concluded that government could finance other projects with more potential for economic growth, such as infrastructure and education.
Arlington officials have heard all this before, and it’s hard to quantify the economic impact of pro sports teams and win over doubters. While Arlington has had solid growth, the entire region has been booming for most of the past decade, and other North Texas cities have grown faster.
Many factors influence a city’s sales tax collections, property tax base and job growth. But in evaluating the payoff from AT&T Stadium, local officials suggest starting with a different premise.
"What gets missed is that AT&T is not a typical football stadium," said Bruce Payne, Arlington's economic development director. "It's really an events center, and it attracts games, concerts, wrestling and more — up to 300 days a year."
When residents were debating a Cowboys stadium, critics often cited the limited NFL schedule, which includes just eight home games. But AT&T has hosted a wide array of headliners, including George Strait, Beyonce, the NBA All-Star Game, the Super Bowl, NFL Draft, NCAA championships, high school football playoffs, pro rodeos and the biggest Wrestlemania ever — drawing over 101,000 in 2016.
Over 12 million fans have attended events since the 2009 opening, according to the Cowboys. And AT&T Stadium is such an icon — with its striking modern design and acclaimed art collection — that over 5 million visitors have taken daily tours.
“We get developers who want to be close to it,” Payne said about the stadium and other attractions in the city’s entertainment district.
The latest addition is Texas Live, a $250 million venue with restaurants, bars, stores and other recreation and entertainment. The 200,000-square-foot venue opened last year, and next door, a Live by Loews hotel opened last month. Before Auburn and Oregon squared off in college football last weekend, Texas Live was jammed with an estimated 5,000 fans — a common turnout for a big event, Arlington officials said.
In its first year, Texas Live attracted 2.5 million visitors, adding to Arlington’s momentum. In 2017, Arlington attracted 14.5 million visitors from outside the city, a 45% increase from 2010. City officials estimate that Arlington is currently drawing 17 million visitors a year.
"It's amazing," said Bud Weinstein, an economist at the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University. "Arlington has really developed into an entertainment destination, even when games aren't being played there."
In 2003, before the Cowboys' stadium emerged as an issue in Arlington, Weinstein helped compile a research report on Arlington’s future. It documented many challenges, including the city’s lagging growth in jobs, income and home values. Among the nine biggest cities in North Texas, Arlington had the largest increase in poverty in the 1990s.
“Most importantly,” Weinstein wrote in the report’s conclusion, “Arlington must be perceived by itself, and the outside world, as a ‘competitive city.’ ”
That’s happened, the economist said, and not just because of sports. The University of Texas at Arlington has grown in size and prestige, and downtown Arlington has improved significantly.
The giant Viridian development on the north end of the city was a metro leader in housing starts in the past year, and the Arlington Commons project is expected to add about 1,400 upscale apartments.
"Both Viridian and Arlington Commons would not be here without the redevelopment of the entertainment district," said Bob Kembell, who helped usher in the projects. "Cowboys stadium and now the Texas Live development have been critical in attracting capital. The story now is way past the tipping point and Arlington is on everyone's radar."
The city is a finalist to host a $150 million National Medal of Honor Museum, and expects a decision in the next month. It would complement the stadiums, in part because pro football and baseball have strong connections with the military.
How important are those venues in Arlington’s pitch?
“They’re essential,” Mayor Williams said.
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