How Do You Know When Public-Private Partnerships Pay Off?

August 6, 2015

Inside Insight

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baseball field

YOU DON’T

News recently broke that the City of Columbia’s minor league baseball team, an affiliate of the New York Mets, will be called the Fireflies. Amidst all the excitement from public officials and favorable media coverage, some are expressing more skeptical views.

Some of the apprehensions have to do with the name’s sheer weirdness – we take no position on its weirdness – but a few observers have expressed dismay at the costs to city taxpayers.

How much will it cost? As usual with these kinds of deals, no one knows. The ballpark will cost $37 million, but there are innumerable other costs and risks associated with projects like this one, and those costs and risks will go up fast in the entirely plausible event that Columbians don’t care much about the Fireflies.

That’s always the case with “public private partnerships,” as they’re known – enterprises in which government contracts with private companies, not to provide a basic government service, but to promote some allegedly beneficial economic end. So, for instance, a city pays the lion’s share of a baseball stadium in the hopes of “creating jobs” or “revitalizing” an area; or the state pays for a research facility in the hopes of attracting jobs connected to the “knowledge economy.”

Or consider a more recent example: $40 million in state money spent on a training center for a private company. Consider, too, a disastrous attempt by the City of Columbia to build its own hotel in an insane attempt to “develop” the local economy – an act of folly explained in a terrific editorial in The State.

Will we ever find out if these investments met their goals? Will there come a time when we can say, yes, this or that project is now contributing to the economy? Not unless we’re willing to take politicians’ word for it.