Ray Kockentiet isn't one for public speaking. Not that he's particularly bad at it. His voice doesn't crack. He doesn't ramble. Actually, he keeps a laser-sharp focus on his pet topic: the new arena for the Orlando Magic.
"The game has been rigged," he says.
He's not entirely comfortable at the center of attention, a fact he admits over dinner. But he has a point to make, not just to the audience and spattering of local media in attendance, but to the handful of politicians and policymakers within the sound of his voice as well.
It's a little after 7 p.m. on April 26, and Kockentiet is one of 200 people inside the Colonial High School gymnasium. The event is a public forum organized by Orange County Commissioner Mildred Fernandez, designed to gauge the public's feeling on a subject on which they've been allowed very little input.
Kockentiet is the second speaker of the evening. The first person asked why the city didn't combine the new arena and retrofitted Citrus Bowl into one behemoth structure with a retractable roof.
Kockentiet's five-minute "question" for the assembled panel — city and county officials, and representatives of the Magic, Florida Citrus Sports and the performing arts center — is a polite, earnest and direct speech imploring them to rethink their course of action. His message is this: Don't trust the Orlando Magic. Don't trust the Metro Orlando Economic Development Commission. Don't trust Orlando City Hall. Don't trust anyone who tells you that building a new arena and a performing arts center and renovating the Citrus Bowl will be an economic catalyst for Orlando. Beware those "in thousand-dollar suits" who come selling a bill of goods, backed by promises unsupported by facts. There's a world of research out there that flatly contradicts the notion of economic salvation through sports subsidies, but you wouldn't know it by listening to public officials.
He zeroes in on an economic-impact report touted by the Metro Orlando Economic Development Commission which claims that constructing the three venues would pump $1.1 billion into the local economy about as much as they'll cost taxpayers and $619 million and 7,500 jobs per year after that.
"All sales and marketing reports have disclaimers," Kockentiet tells the crowd, and the EDC's is no different. He reads it out loud, because it seems that no one else has thought to do so: "All information provided to us by others was not audited or verified and was assumed to be correct. Because procedures were limited, we express no opinion or assurances of any kind of achievability of any projected information contained herein and this report should not be relied upon for that purpose."
Any report that absolves itself of responsibility for accuracy isn't worth the paper it's printed on, he says. It should be discarded.
For the last two months, Kockentiet has pressed his point online. He trolls the Orlando Sentinel's online comment boards. He blasts e-mails to public officials and members of the local media, correcting what he feels are inaccuracies in their reporting and urging them to challenge the underlying premise that building new sports stadiums is for the greater good.
He's not an economist; Kockentiet has a master's degree in clinical psychology and a bachelor's degree in business management. He's also not employed; "semi-retired" is his preferred phrase, said with the hint of a smile on his lips.
It would be easy to dismiss him as another crank with too much time on his hands, until you read his blog (www.orlando vanitypress.blogspot.com). It may not get a lot of traffic — the day before we talked he got 30 hits; he racks up about 100 hits per week — but it is, bar none, the area's most comprehensive clearinghouse on the economics of sports subsidies. It doesn't take long to realize that Ray Kockentiet knows of what he blogs. If you want to know more than local government or the media is telling you before making up your mind about $1.1 billion in public works, you'd be wise to read it.
"I have a habit of drilling down into things," Kockentiet says in between nibbles on a turkey burger, fries and unsweetened iced tea. "Sometimes I get" — he pauses — "overinvested."
He's got the time for it. He was laid off by the Osceola County Council on Aging in 2002, and hasn't held steady work since. (He says he's "semi-retired" now, and as an intensely private person, declines to disclose personal details.) Before that, he spent a decade working at a mental-health facility in Osceola County.
"I'm difficult to employ," he confesses. "I usually go along pretty well until you hit a button. If I see something that goes against my core values, I'm not going to go along with it."
That's why the arena issue has him so riled. "I have a huge fair button," he says. "This pushes my fair button. I think people are being taken advantage of."
Politically, Kockentiet is all over the map. He campaigned for Eugene McCarthy in 1968. He's a social liberal who dislikes government spending. He objects to the hotel-bed tax on principle, because the tourists being taxed have no say in the matter.
"Taxing persons without say is taxation without representation," he told the April 26 gathering. "We fought a war over that, you may recall."
Orlando Vanity Press isn't his only foray onto the Internet. He also has a site dedicated to the wonders of homemade sourdough bread (http://sourdoughbaking.blogspot.com), though he doesn't keep that one up as much. He started Orlando Vanity Press in 2004 to pontificate on the presidential election. After George W. Bush won, he quit posting.
Then the arena debate heated up. In his gut, Kockentiet believes it is not only fundamentally wrong, but financially counterproductive to put tax dollars toward an arena at the behest of one of the world's richest men, or for a barely used football stadium. But his website is more than a polemic. He doesn't rant. He does what many in the pajamas media don't: research. And he's raising an issue that has been discussed little in the city's full-throttle effort to build these community venues.
"Why is no one questioning this?" he asks. It's a very good question.
An honest broker
Kockentiet doesn't claim a monopoly on truth. Quite the opposite: "The fair warning is: the quality, accuracy and fairness of the work by any blogger should always be verified," he writes in one post. "I am not a trained journalist. I don't have a corner on knowledge — I often just have a point of view.
"Don't believe everything you read, see or hear no matter who says it. There are a lot of people in the media feeding the public fish; I am doing as best as I can to help others learn how to fish."
Opinions aside, he does his best to be fair — an "honest broker," as he calls it. When arena backers send him links to pro-sports team research, he puts them up.
"I make an open invitation to venue supporters to produce any peer-reviewed economic analysis performed by economists in the public domain that bolsters their position," he writes on the blog. "I haven't gotten any yet."
In fact, his site is at its best as a portal to other's research. He links to obvious sources — the Sentinel's news coverage, the Metro Orlando Economic Development Commission study and the website for the pro-arena Project Hometown, for example — but he also includes dozens of studies from such various sources as the City of New York Independent Budget Report, the Brookings Institution and the conservative National Taxpayers Union Foundation.
Taken together, it's hard to escape the conclusion that this thing is a boondoggle. Orlando isn't the first, or only, city pursuing publicly financed sports stadiums. Since 1990, 89 of 120 major sports franchises have received new or improved stadiums and arenas. These facilities have cost taxpayers $17 billion, according to A Tale of Two Stadiums: Comparing the Economic Impact of Chicago's Wrigley Field and U.S. Cellular Field, which was published in 2006 and is linked to Kockentiet's site.
This study, put forth by the International Association of Sports Economists, adds, "Most economists have been critical of public funding of sports facilities. Numerous academic studies of stadiums and arenas, professional franchises, and major sporting events … have uniformly found little or no gains in income, employment or tax revenues as a result of professional sports. These economists speculate that spending on sports merely substitutes for other expenditures that would have occurred in the economy in the absence of sports."
On the other hand, the paper says, cities argue that these stadiums help with revitalization efforts, which spurs non-sports businesses like bars and restaurants. Has that worked out? "While some cities have realized a benefit, in other cases economic development has been retarded by the new playing facility," the report states.
According to the paper's authors, Wrigley Field made a positive impact on the Near North Side of Chicago because it nestled itself into an existing and thriving neighborhood. On the other hand, U.S. Cellular Field, on the South Side of Chicago — where the White Sox play — "provides the classic case of the sports stadium as a ‘walled fortress' that internalizes all economic activity in order to maximize revenues for the franchise at the expense of local economic development," the paper argues. "Unfortunately for the proponents of sports-based development, the White Sox model is the path that is most often followed by team owners desiring new stadiums to replace aging or economically obsolete facilities."
Kockentiet also links to Sports, Jobs and Taxes: Are New Stadiums Worth the Cost?, written by Roger Noll and Andrew Zimbalist in 1997 and posted on the Brookings Institution site. "In every case, the conclusions are the same," the authors write. "A new sports facility has an extremely small (perhaps even negative) effect on overall economic activity and employment. No recent facility appears to have earned anything approaching a reasonable return on investment. No recent facility has been self-financing in terms of its impact on net tax revenues. Regardless of whether the unit of analysis is a local neighborhood, a city, or an entire metropolitan area, the economic benefits of sports facilities are de minimus. … Sports facilities attract neither tourists nor new industry."
Studies — such as the one pushed by Metro Orlando Economic Development Commission — that hype a stadium's impact "overstate the economic impact of a facility because they confuse gross and net economics effects," they write. "Most spending inside a stadium is a substitute for other local recreational spending, such as movies and restaurants."
Then there's the 1998 paper Double Play: The Economics and Financing of Stadiums for the Yankees and Mets by the Independent Budget Office of New York City, which at the time was studying what to do with its baseball stadiums. "Research consistently finds that new stadiums do not produce economic growth in metropolitan areas. These results imply that stadiums do not lead to increases in tourism, nor do they serve as a significant attraction to non-retail establishments. To the extent that stadiums benefit the businesses near them, the benefits reflect the expenditures of metropolitan area residents."
Also on Kockentiet's site: In the December 2005 report Selling the Big Game: Estimating the Economic Impact of Mega-Events Through Taxable Sales, three College of the Holy Cross professors take down the idea that big games and events like the NBA All-Star Game and NCAA championships — similar to the ones civic boosters promise if we build these venues — are good for the economy.
"Professional sports leagues, franchises, and civic boosters have used the promise of an all-star game or league championship as an incentive for host cities to construct new stadiums or arenas at considerable public expense," they write. "Past league-sponsored studies have estimated that Super Bowls, All-Star games and other sports mega-events increase economic activity by hundreds of millions of dollars in host cities. Our analysis fails to support these claims."
As this paper notes, leagues use these games as "carrots" to get cities to build new stadiums. The NBA has already promised Orlando an all-star game if it builds a new arena. It's not an uncommon practice: "For example, in baseball, of the 15 new major league stadiums built between 1970 and 1997, 13 were selected by `Major League Baseball` to host an All-Star Game within five years of their construction."
These professors also warn that the promised economic impact can be exaggerated to sell the project. "`T`he 1997 NCAA Women's Basketball Final Four was estimated to have an economic impact of $7 million on the local economy of Cincinnati, but the same event was predicted to produce a $32 million impact on the San Jose economy just two years later," they write. "The 10-fold disparity in the estimated impact for the same annual event illustrates the ad hoc nature of these studies. In some cases, economic impact figures appear to be completely fabricated."
Other links on Kockentiet's site tackle "the substitution effect," in which boosters gin up economic numbers without mentioning that that money would be spent locally anyhow. Another paper suggests that while it seems nice to tax tourists for the things you want to build — as a way for politicians to sell otherwise unpopular ideas — "the benefits of these taxes are not nearly so clear."
Kockentiet elaborates on that idea in a flyer he passed out at the community venue forums: "Raising tourist taxes drains fuel from the local economic engine. Every dollar taken from a tourist's wallet means one less dollar that could be spent in our local economy. That means less money for local businesses. Many local businesses compete with the Magic for the same entertainment dollars in local residents' pockets. But unlike the Magic those businesses don't get subsidies."
Kockentiet has chosen sides — he's a proponent of the arts center, but not the arena or Citrus Bowl — but if he finds information that runs contrary to his point of view, he posts it as well.
For instance, there is What are the Benefits of Hosting a Major League Sports Franchise? by two economists with the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. In it, they argue that while "job creation and tax revenue benefits from hosting a major league franchise fall far short of typical public outlays on constructing a new sports facility," the "large quality of life benefits associated with hosting a major league team may justify the public outlays."
Later the paper asserts, "The presence of a major league sports franchise can help make a metro area an attractive place to live." This paper also shuns the entire idea of impact studies. "Residents and elected officials who understand that the benefits of a sports team are the same sort that flow from parks, zoos, museums, and theater can decide on their own how much hosting a major league team is worth."
Kockentiet also posts an interview with Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College professor (who co-wrote the aforementioned article posted by the Brookings Institution), who says this: "I don't think sports contribute to economic viability in a community. They do provide a form of entertainment, engagement, and community identity, and that can be very positive."
Quality of life
If you think the Magic are giving the city a raw deal, then you're probably not happy with the Orlando Sentinel's editorial page. Outside City Hall itself, there has been no bigger proponent for building these projects right now. Those who question the economics (city commissioner Phil Diamond, for example) are ridiculed as shortsighted. The Sentinel editorial board even ripped Orange County commissioner Fernandez over the way her April 26 forum went: The Magic weren't given enough time to persuade the public, they argued, because opponents took too long expressing their misgivings.
Kockentiet sees a conflict of interest afoot. "They aren't willing to say how much that sports section is worth to them," he says. "They're spending a lot of political capital on this."
On the blog he goes farther. He links to www.forbes.com, which says that the Sentinel is one of the Magic's largest corporate sponsors. The paper is also Florida Citrus Sports' official media partner. There's nothing inherently wrong with that. But Kockentiet believes the Sentinel's editorial board should mention their connections somewhere in its gushing praise for the projects. He links to the Sentinel itself, in its ethical guidelines, to make his point: "When conflicts of interest are unavoidable but not obvious to readers, they should be disclosed in the story."
"I think it never hurts to be transparent with your readers," he says.
When the Sentinel editorializes, Kockentiet rebuts. For instance, when the board wrote an April 22 editorial called "What's not to like?", he responded thus: "The board can no longer intellectually support any claim of economic benefits so the fall back position has become ‘quality of life.' A definition of quality of life depends on whom one asks. For some it demands having numerous choices as to where to spend excess disposable income in an effort to be amused and/or entertained. For others it is being fortunate enough to have a roof overhead, a steady job, food in one's stomach and the hope that the gun fire was not intentionally aimed at you."
He also takes his dispute to the Sentinel's home turf, commenting on their blogs. On April 23, deputy editorial page director Mike Griffin wrote a blog entry called "It's time to build the downtown venues." Kockentiet answered it with a long screed about why, economically speaking, that's a bad idea.
"What about the chance to enjoy a game, a first-class Broadway play or a great concert?" Griffin replied. "We can disagree about the economic development activities, but what's wrong with building venues that locals can enjoy with their families?"
True to form, Kockentiet answered with a mini-essay on the Contingent Valuation Method, which assigns a dollar sign to the value a team has on its community. He postulates, the Magic don't add up.
To which Griffin responded: "`W`e've never argued that these venues provide economic development. … They should be built because they will enhance the quality of life for the region."
"Now they're arguing quality of life," Kockentiet says to Orlando Weekly. "Quality of life is a very nebulous concept."
The Sentinel won't let him post links to research on its site. When he tried, his posts were deleted and administrators threatened to ban him for "spamming," he says.
One person talking
Kockentiet's not a journalist, but he does provide tips for those who are. There's a post on his blog directed to "journalists covering this story." The link takes them to a story on www.businessjournalism.org. The author, Brad Humphreys, urges those in the media not to take at face value economic impact assertions. "Overall," he writes, "professional sports reduced real per-capita income in their metropolitan areas by about $40 a year."
Humphreys' research, he points out, is published in peer-reviewed, academic journals. The forecasts presented by boosters during these debates get no such scrutiny. "To my knowledge, nobody has ever done a retrospective study of the accuracy of these forecasts — perhaps thanks to the lethargy induced by the lavish buffet and open bar at the gala stadium opening," Humphreys writes.
Kockentiet has no delusions of grandeur. Other than his blog, he doesn't have an outlet for his point of view. The Sentinel buys ink by the barrel; Kockentiet uses a Blogger site because it's free.
As the April 26 meeting adjourns, he makes the rounds. He talks to Gary Pfister, the head of the watchdog group CountyWatch. He chats with commissioner Diamond. He waits in line to have a word with Orlando Economic Development Director Frank Billingsley. The point isn't to immerse himself among the decision-makers. The point is to direct them to the cache of information upon which he sits.
Certainly, there is more information out there than Kockentiet could ever hope to put on his site. And he admits to his biases, although he says he formed them after his research, not before. But his little piece of cyberspace does play host to a debate that's not happening anywhere else in this city. That, he says, is the point.
"My goal for the website is to provide links to facilitate voter education and public dialogue," he said in a May 1 e-mail to officials and media outlets. "One person talking is not a conversation."firstname.lastname@example.org