Subsidizing often a crutch for broken idea
Be Walt Disney for a moment. Would you build a theme park based on automobile manufacturing?
Think of the thrills -- the roar of assembly lines; robot welders flashing sparks; fenders, engines and tires swinging past, delivered "just-in-time."
We'll never know if Disney would have gone for it. But the state of Michigan went for it, investing $35 million of local, state and federal funds into AutoWorld.
The year was 1984 and the focus seven acres in downtown Flint, a plant town badly hit by shutdowns. The politicians estimated that 900,000 visitors a year would give Flint a new lease on economic life.
It didn't happen. After just two years AutoWorld shut down -- a political idea, not an entertainment idea.
(And after all, who needed it• Decades earlier, automaker Henry Ford established Greenfield Village near Detroit and set up public tours of his Rouge assembly plant, both great attractions to this day.)
In 1998 Michigan politicos saw tourist magic in cereal-making. This time the city for rescue was Battle Creek, home of the corn flake. Cereal City USA received a $900,000 state loan. A projected 400,000 visitors a year would enjoy "wonderful, interactive experiences and entertainment for the whole family." But "years of dismal attendance" closed it all this past January, said policy analysts Diane Katz and James Hohman.
Reporting in the Heartland Institute's "Budget & Tax News," Katz and Hohman also cited Kalamazoo's narrow escape. That city sought 50 percent state funding for an $80 million "aviation history museum." But the local share might involve a 25 percent hike in hotel taxes. Kalamazooans said no, and the state's planning grant went back.
Not so lucky was the city of Pontiac. Its Silverdome cost $55 million in 1975 and 27 years later the Detroit Lions returned to Detroit. The football team indemnified the city, but Katz and Hohman say Pontiac still "has a hefty deficit maintaining the 127-acre site."
Their conclusion: Michigan's record of subsidizing theme parks is "abysmal."
A more general conclusion might be drawn covering any state, any politicians. They don't use their own money and they have no special talent picking what enterprises will prosper. Remember ex-Mayor Tom Murphy's wistful search for a "first-day attraction" theme park to occupy the barrens between Pittsburgh's subsidized sports stadiums•
"An amusement facility that must rely on tax dollars rather than private investment is by definition not viable and thus unworthy of taxpayer support," say Katz and Hohman.
But they add that a Michigan company is even now seeking 1,800 publicly-owned acres in the forested north-central part of the state, which also would need $25 million in public funds for water, sewer and access improvements. What for• A $160 million theme park.