Struggling to save the Philadelphia bike race – we get what we pay for

    Does it make sense to bill the Philadelphia bike race hundreds of thousands of dollars for city services while paying other sports franchises millions of dollars for the just privilege of having them in the city?

    As we work frantically to save the Philadelphia pro cycling championship from extinction, I’m struck by a couple of facts.

    Fact one: According to the reporting on this saga, one reason the race is in trouble is that the city handed organizers a bill for $345,000 for last year’s race, which they couldn’t handle.

    Fact two: This year the city will write a check to the Philadelphia Eagles for just over $9 million to keep them happy and playing in Philadelphia.

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    Yeah, I know the bike race isn’t the Eagles. The Manayunk run up the wall is a once-a-year event, while the Eagles play 10 whole games a year in the stadium they got a public subsidy of over $200 million to build (the $9 million payment is one part of that subsidy package: an escalating series of annual operating and maintenance payments that last through 2027).

    My point is that a lot of events and institutions claim to bring tourists or jobs to Philadelphia, and it sometimes seems a little arbitrary which ones get public subsidies, and which ones get bills.

    Personally, I don’t care whether we keep the bike race or not. I find it pretty boring to watch a bunch of guys pedaling in the same direction, and I can think of any number of excuses to open a lawn chair and drink if I want to. And I’ve never heard anybody from outside Philadelphia mention that there’s a big bike race here.

    Still, a lot of people enjoy it, and no doubt it brings some visitors for a weekend. But does anybody in government ever rationally compare the costs and benefits of the subsidies we hand out to private companies here?

    I became convinced covering the debate over stadium construction in 2000 that claims the city would get its investment back in new jobs and tax revenues was a bunch of hokum. The fact is that taxpayers handed hundreds of millions to profit-making corporations to keep their teams playing here.

    We levy a 15 percent tax on hotel rooms here, and that generates millions that go the convention center and folks who promote tourism in this city. Does it make sense?

    There’s a professor of public policy at the University of Texas in San Antonio who’s made a specialty of looking at the economic impact of convention centers, and has raised some troubling questions. If you’re feeling wonky, here’s some testimony he gave Congress in 2007, which dealt in part with Philadelphia’s convention center.

    Anyway, if we really think the bike race is worth saving, how about asking the Eagles and Phillies, or the tourism boosters to part with a little of their share of the public largess and become sponsors?


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