Zingo is almost gone. Bell's Amusement Park has had the help of some heavy duty cranes, funded with $210,000 from the Tulsa County Public Facilities Authority (TCPFA -- aka the Fair Board), to speed up the process of dismantling the classic wooden roller coaster, the only Bell's ride remaining to be taken down, packed up, and hauled off.
The financial assistance from TCPFA again raises the question: What is their all-fired hurry to get rid of Bell's?
The terms of Bell's lease -- 120 days to clear out -- are a reality, but they aren't a sufficient explanation for the rush.
Bell's long-term financial viability -- the stated reason for the TCPFA's decision not to renew Bell's lease -- isn't a convincing reason either. It certainly doesn't provide a compelling explanation for the decision to forbid Bell's from holding a final 2007 season at Expo Square.
But I was recently reminded of some facts about a much-heralded Expo Square event that may explain what's really going on.
The 2008 U.S. National Arabian and Half-Arabian Championship Horse Show will run from October 16 to October 25. The Expo Square website has the time from October 28 to November 4 marked as "Do not book. Time needed after U. S. Arabian Show." That looks like three days immediately after the event for move-out and then another week for Expo Square staff to clean up and make the facility ready for another event.
If the Tulsa State Fair follows normal patterns, the 2008 fair will end October 5, giving Expo Square at most 10 days to convert the Expo Building into an enormous horse barn. That means clearing out what's left from the fair, covering the 10 acres of the Expo Building's floor with dirt, and building over 2000 horse stalls. The real deadline is likely a few days before the official start of the show.
Expo Square officials have said that it will be a real challenge to get everything ready in the short amount of time available. Part of the plan to make it happen is to use a vacant area just west of the Expo Building as a staging area for assembling all the required equipment, dirt, and other material, ready to move in to the Expo Building.
That much is fact; this is speculation: At some point in 2006, Expo Square officials realized that there was not enough time between the 2008 fair and the 2008 Arabian horse show to get the Expo Building ready. The solution was to get rid of Bell's to make room for a staging area, which would allow some preparations to be made before the 2008 fair ended. The fact that terminating Bell's would also remove a competitor for midway operator Murphy Bros. and Murphy-owned Big Splash was just a side benefit for a long-time associate of new Expo Square CEO Rick Bjorklund.
This is not the sort of thing you can just come out and tell people: We're getting rid of the amusement park you grew up with, the amusement park that's been around for 55 years, so we can host a 10-day event for three years.
If my speculation is correct -- that accommodating the Arabian show was the compelling reason for the Fair Board to tell Bell's to clear off -- it means that we've traded a locally-owned business that provided recreation and memories for tens of thousands of Tulsans annually for an event that will have only an indirect impact on Tulsa's quality of life.
It also means we've traded a business with a tangible and permanent presence in Tulsa for an event with no permanent commitment. Bell's investment in Tulsa was so permanent and tangible that it's taking half a year to pack up and move.
But when the Arabian Horse Association leaves after 2010 show, they won't leave anything behind, and they won't lose anything if they decide never to come back.
So Tulsa County taxpayers have invested tens of millions of dollars in facilities to accommodate a show that could be here today and gone tomorrow.
It's a bit like remodeling your kitchen so you can cook for someone on your first date.
Countless cities and counties are sadder but wiser for having subsidized conventions, trade shows, sports teams, and other highly mobile enterprises. It would be a far more sensible economic development strategy to encourage the growth of local businesses and to attract new businesses who will invest in bricks and mortar, businesses that can't easily pull up roots and move.
Event subsidies are always defended on the grounds of economic impact estimates. An event is expected to bring so many new dollars to town, which will generate increased sales taxes, which should translate to more cops, fewer potholes, and a higher quality of life for locals.
It's an inexact science. Someone at a city's Convention and Visitors Bureau takes an estimated number of out-of-town attendees and multiplies that number by an estimated expenditure per attendee, an estimate that seems to expect every attendee to eat lobster for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Then the result is multiplied by a "multiplier" to account for recirculation of the same dollars within the community.
The economic impact estimates for the U. S. National Arabian and Half-Arabian Championship Horse Show have been mysteriously on the rise. In 2004, when the TCPFA signed the three-year contract with the Arabian Horse Association, they announced an estimated $17 million annual impact.
For the 2008, 2009, and 2010 shows, Expo Square will receive $1.1 million in rental fees, but TCPFA officials suggested at the time that the money would barely cover Expo Square's expenses in hosting the event. Denny Tuttle, then the CEO of Expo Square estimated a profit of about $50,000 a year.
An October 2005 newsletter from the Tulsa County Commissioners claims a $25 million annual impact for the show.
Some time in the course of the annexation debate, the economic impact estimate more than doubled from the original number, to $40 million a year.
As a point of comparison, the Tulsa Metro Chamber estimates an economic impact of $69.5 million for the 2007 PGA Championship, one of golf's four major tournaments, which is expected to draw 300,000 spectators over four days.
Albuquerque officials estimated the impact of the 2005 Arabian show at $18.4 million, which suggests that Expo Square's 2004 estimate wasn't far off. Since Albuquerque alternated years with Louisville for decades, the impact ought to show up as a regular biennial fluctuation in the city's tax receipts.
Is attracting an event like the Arabian horse show worth it? For the sake of argument, let's take the high estimate -- $40 million. That would mean about $1,200,000 in additional city sales tax revenue and an extra $400,000 (roughly) in county sales tax revenue.
So over three years, taxpayers are spending an estimated $20 million on facilities specifically to attract and accommodate the Arabian show, in return for, at most, $4.8 million more that local government would be able to spend on services to the taxpayers. That's a net loss to taxpayers of $15.2 million for their investment.
Sure, hotels and restaurant owners will see an additional benefit, but none of that money will trickle down to area residents who work for companies like Hilti or American Airlines or Williams.
Wouldn't it have been more efficient to spend the $20 million directly on services to the taxpayers?
And while I'm no fan of public subsidies for private business, we do it all the time for the sake of jobs, events, and quality of life: $22.3 million for American Airlines, for example. So what would have been wrong with spending a much smaller amount of money -- or just demanding a lower rent -- to help revitalize a Tulsa family tradition?
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