Great Moments in the History of Boondoggles
Developers have wielded considerable power in the city halls of the world since the invention of the mayor’s race. But by the latter part of the 20th century, the increased mobility of big business and its nearly constant (not to mention credible) threat to relocate had afforded corporations unprecedented might before evermore enfeebled municipal governments. Mega-projects like stadiums, festival marketplaces, or amusement parks have all begun to demand public funds as a matter of course.
If a city is lucky, these projects are successful in retaining or attracting jobs. But often enough they leave nothing behind save for an empty building and a heavy public financial obligation.
As a public service to the city council members and mayors of the world (not to mention the taxpayers they serve!) who are currently pushing for big subsidies, tax increment finance deals, or abatements for their pet mega-projects, we offer this quick look back at three of the most embarrassing municipal boondoggles in American history. Don't say we didn't warn you.
The Disney Hole
The surface lot on 8th and Market in Philadelphia, where DisneyQuest was to be built. Image courtesy Google Street View
The “Disney Hole” at 8th and Market might not be Philadelphia's biggest boondoggle in dollars lost. But it's the failure that has found a permanent home in this city's urban lore.
In 1998, Disney proposed opening a DisneyQuest in Philadelphia, a “DisneyQuest” being a vertically-packaged “urban entertainment center” that the company wanted to build a few dozen of in cities nationwide. The failure was dubbed “The Disney Hole”—named for the big hole that unfinished construction left behind—and continues in the local imagination as an icon of the frustrations of redevelopment.
In 2003, The Philadelphia Inquirer estimated the project would end up costing taxpayers $44 million, including millions borrowed by the Parking Authority for a 988-space garage. Disney had also secured a $25 million tax break from the city, thanks to energetic backing from then-Mayor Ed Rendell and City Council President (later Mayor) John Street. Hundreds of thousands of dollars went to politically-connected lawyers, including one now-dead associate of Street's who was indicted on federal corruption charges.
"You may remember that at the time, there was also a major proposal from the Simon Group for a large, family entertainment venue on the Delaware River,” says Deputy Mayor and Philadelphia City Planning Commission chairman Alan Greenberger. "It didn't help that these two entities were probably trying to woo some of the same tenants simultaneously. It also didn't help that both these ideas were so foreign to the essential DNA of the city."
Disney dropped out in 2000, and shuttered the one open DisneyQuest in Chicago in 2001—just two years after it had opened. Today, the sites are parking lots run by the Philadelphia Parking Authority.
AutoWorld: Flint, Michigan
Flint, Michigan's short-lived "AutoWorld" amusement park, which closed in 1986 two years after it opened, had to make this list. Flint's industrial economy depended almost entirely on General Motors. And when General Motors decided to shut down production, civic leaders were desperate to keep the town from falling apart. And at first, the people of Flint were optimistic—but that disposition quickly faded.
"We got up there early. We bought tickets in advance," Clyde Howd, a Delphi Flint East retiree whose family were the park's first visitors, told the Flint Journal. "The rides and things they had were all low-key. You could tell it was just something that wasn't going to make it. They needed more thrill."
Six Flags AutoWorld opened on July 4, 1984, and crowds poured in. But attractions like a three-story V-6 engine, and mascots like Backfire the Clown, spelled doom. The park was never open for more than 6 consecutive months.
"The reality was that rides at AutoWorld weren't very thrilling and sometimes didn't work,” according to a 2009 Flint Journal article marking the 25th anniversary of the park's demise. "On just its second day, two rides -- the Humorous History of Automobility and The Great Race --were shut down and a 1916 carousel also had to be closed."
The local Charles Stewart Mott Foundation ended up paying $50 million so that the city, on the hook for the bonds, did not go bankrupt.
New York City Bails Out Wall Street—in 1998
Richard Grasso (L), then Chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, smiles at a news conference with New York City with New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Image courtesy Reuters
In 1998, long before Occupy Wall Street channeled widespread anger at high finance, New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani offered to let the New York Stock Exchange pig out at the public trough. The Exchange kept threatening to move to Jersey City, so the city pledged $900 million in subsidies, including cash and tax breaks, to the great icon of American wealth.
'"The Mayor's playing Santa Claus with the city's treasury,'" State Senator Franz S. Leichter, a Democrat, told the New York Times that year. ''The fact is the city is paying an inordinate amount on the dubious proposition that the stock exchange would have moved to Jersey City. And all this has been done without any public debate.''
Geopolitics intervened where public debate couldn't, and the deal collapsed in the wake of post-9/11 security concerns. Yet city taxpayers were still on the hook for $100 million, according to Good Jobs New York.