ShareThis Page
News Columnists

Subsidizing often a crutch for broken idea

| Thursday, Aug. 16, 2007

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.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.

click me