In my hometown of Hutchinson, Kan., there is a family-style Mexican restaurant called The Anchor Inn, and it is a perfect thing. By this I don’t mean it’s the best Mexican food I’ve ever had, but it is the best restaurant in Hutchinson, it has been around forever, and the food is just like you remember it, every time you go back. You can probably think of a place just like that in your hometown.
Sometime in the 1990s, the universe approved Hutchinson for a Carlos O’Kelly’s, which is a boring chain of Mexican restaurants (that you have to admit offer pretty good salsa). Despite the presence of a superior and locally owned product within the bounds of the same small town, the Carlos franchise opened to great success and fanfare. In high school my friends and I would go in there, order a round of Cokes, eat the chips and salsa, and bounce. What was exciting about it wasn’t that our town had been yearning for a good Mexican restaurant and finally got one. We already had that. It was the same sensation we felt when the Applebee’s came to town, or the Starbucks, or the Wichita TV news.
They noticed us! We count!
People in big cities don’t feel that way very often. I live in Houston now, and, as with all major cities, there are so many famous people from here, so many well-known things that happened here, so many big events, that you never feel left out or left behind by the culture at large. One of our biggest points of insecurity comes from the fact that our most famous piece of architecture is the Astrodome, which at present is about a decade into its process of being reclaimed by the earth – but even that was once called The Eighth Wonder of the World.
There is an exception to this, though. There is a time when big-city people feel that same existential desertion that is felt by country folk, and that time is when there is an NFL team that’s talking about moving.
It happens with NBA and MLB teams too, but the dynamic is easiest to see when a couple of cities get into a bidding war over an NFL team, such as has happened a couple times in the NFL this past year. A host of economists who have studied this issue have concluded there is just no real evidence that publicly financing a stadium has a significant positive impact on a city’s economy. Most of the jobs created are part-time, temporary or both, expenditures by local citizens mostly amount to money that would have been spent somewhere else in the local economy anyway, and although economic activity is stimulated in certain neighborhoods or industries, the total economic activity in the cities remain the same.
And yet this is the argument trotted out every time by NFL owners, local politicians and even local media.
How do they get away with it?
Well, it’s because people want it to be true. They want an NFL team, so they’re prone to believing any statement made in support of that objective. It’s basic confirmation bias. They are looking for a justification for giving hundreds of millions of public dollars to a billionaire. For a person with even mild amounts of principle and dignity, this justification is difficult to find if it can’t be argued the city will benefit financially.
So if we’re going to keep publicly financing stadiums for professional sports owners, we owe it to ourselves to call these projects what they really are: Municipal extravagances erected to validate the feelings of local citizens.
The fear of losing a local team isn’t just the fear of losing something you loved, it’s the fear of your city becoming second-rate, and you by extension. What is the difference, really, between Oklahoma City and Tulsa if it’s not that Oklahoma City has the Thunder and Tulsa doesn’t? Oklahoma City has been chosen. It has been validated.
Oklahoma City got a Carlos O’Kelly’s.
And there is something to be said for that. There’s something to be said for living in a city that has nice things and endeavors to get more. You can’t quantify what it means to people to have an NFL team in their city, but that doesn’t make having one meaningless.
The arrival of Carlos O’Kelly’s did not transform Hutchinson. I’m not sure it made Hutchinson any better or any worse than it was before. But as a teenager there, it felt good to see it go in. It felt like things were getting better, whether they actually were or not.
And, sure, that’s something. But it’s not much.