Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Arena Gives Crowds New Look at Newark

By Karl Vilacoba

Growing up on the Jersey Shore, I often had to choose between the Meadowlands and Madison Square Garden when it came to spending my entertainment dollars. The choice usually boiled down to this question: the highway or the railway?

Whether it was a concert tour or a pro-wrestling card, the venues sometimes hosted the same events days apart. I could make the car trip up the New Jersey Turnpike to the Meadowlands sports complex (home to Giants Stadium and the Izod Center) or hop on a train to Penn Station New York, which is basically the Garden’s basement. Although it was a good half-hour longer, MSG usually won out. The train eliminated the stress of driving as well as the pesky tack-on prices for tolls, parking and gas. But with Newark’s Prudential Center now up and running, I’ll probably be seeing less of MSG in the future.

Pulling out of Penn Station Newark one night, I glanced out the train window at the 4,800-square-foot TV screen on the arena’s exterior and it dawned on me how important transportation is to a venue’s success. Out of this commuter’s daydream was born the idea for this issue’s look at sports arenas and transportation. I learned a lot from reading and writing the various articles in this series, and I hope you did, too.

One of the most thought-provoking of the bunch was a sidebar I worked on called “Academics Say Stadiums Don’t Pay.” The piece features an interview with Professor Rick Eckstein, author of a book that challenges the notion of the sports arena as a catalyst for economic revitalization. Eckstein said that of the dozens of publicly financed stadium projects he’s studied, not one has lived up to its financial promises. When you crunch all of the relevant numbers -- jobs created, tax ratables, sales revenues, etc. -- it never justifies the public investment, he said. And when confronted by these facts, he said, people will defend the stadiums with lame arguments along the lines of community pride.

Which brings me back to Newark. At the expense of sounding just like the suckers Professor Eckstein warned me about, I still think the city’s decision to invest in the Prudential Center was a no-brainer.

Before I started working here, I flat out feared Newark. Notice I said “before.” Because once I spent some time downtown, I felt as safe there as Manhattan. This area today has plenty of great things going for it – the trick is getting people here to see for themselves. That’s exactly what the Prudential Center has been doing, thousands of people a night.

Former Mayor Sharpe James relentlessly pursued a downtown arena a few years ago, casting total faith in the idea that it would be the great economic cornerstone for the city’s future. He offered team owners the heavens to relocate to a blighted patch of properties a few blocks from Newark Penn Station. Just when it seemed like the plan had flatlined, James sealed the deal by pledging $210 million toward its construction. He took some lumps for the move, and rightfully so. After all, the city has no shortage of pressing needs that money could have been spent on.

Let’s say Newark earns back just half of that money through arena-related tax revenues. Can the rest of what it gains really be quantified? In the years since the 1967 riots, attracting tourists has been a huge challenge and good national publicity has been scarce. If you asked me two years ago what the first word to come to mind would be when you said “Newark,” I’d have responded with something like “crime.” Standing around the streets before a recent Devils game, I couldn’t help but wonder how many of those fans would have said the same.

But not after they left. Now the first word they think of might be “Devils,” “hockey,” “arena” or “fun.” If they’ve looked around a little, it could even be something like “museums,” “restaurants” or “universities.” That sure beats “crime.” How much is a change like that worth?

Karl Vilacoba is the author of “The Devils in the Details,” published in the Summer 2008 issue of InTransition. He is the magazine’s managing editor.

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