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Does downtown Raleigh really need a new stadium?



What's wrong with dreaming big?

In a Dec. 28 editorial, The News & Observer answered this painfully vague question with an unflinching, resounding nothing. The big dreams of which the N&O's editorial board offered a full-throated—if perhaps premature—endorsement are focused on the further revitalization of downtown Raleigh: specifically, a new arena or stadium on downtown's southern edge.

"Such places have become economic catalysts in many cities where they have spurred retail and residential construction," the paper opined. A news piece published the previous day laid out a beautiful scenario: "Imagine driving up South Saunders Street and, as you close in on downtown Raleigh, being greeted by a shiny, new athletic stadium."

Who could argue with an "economic catalyst," and a shiny one at that?

The idea first emerged in the city's 10-year downtown experience plan—the final version was released in September in partnership with the Downtown Raleigh Alliance and other groups—as part of a larger revitalization package. Indeed, other downtown boosters have pitched even more upgrades, including an expansion of the performing arts center.

In the plan, the stadium/entertainment complex is cited as a "new citywide destination in the heart of the district" that would allow the city to make the area more walkable and provide easier access to parking. It's also mentioned as a destination for "potential rail-based transit" in the corridor between the arena and several (imagined) hotels, retail locations and office buildings.

The end result, proponents say, will be a world-class downtown with amenities that rival those of bigger cities like Austin. And the stadium could be just the catalyst downtown needs.

"This could be a great idea indeed," the N&O argued, "providing a venue for everything from amateur sports to Carolina Hurricanes hockey to N.C. State basketball."

One problem: Neither of those teams has any interest in relocating from the PNC Arena in the foreseeable future.

Of course, right now this is all more aspirational than concrete. "It was put in the 10-year downtown plan as an idea, and this was meant to be an idea even past the 10 years, but it's not something I'm aware of is being worked on," says Downtown Raleigh Alliance planning director Bill King, who worked on the plan*. "In terms of an arena, PNC has a good amount of life left in it. ... There's not any momentum to build a huge new stadium or arena downtown anytime soon."

"We don't have a program, we don't have an identified end user, we don't have any idea of how much it would cost," echoes city planning director Ken Bowers. "There would be much more to do before any such venue could be built in downtown Raleigh."

That's certainly true. But it's also true that such venues are aspirational until they're not. Versions of this story have played out in city after city in recent decades. Elected officials and civic boosters decide a stadium is needed, and then they make it happen. And they've been remarkably successful. As Richard Florida noted in The Atlantic last year, over $12 billion of the public's money has gone into building stadiums for NFL teams alone—not including taxpayer-subsidized NBA, NHL, MLB, MLS and college facilities.

With this new stadium or arena already championed by the media outlet with the region's largest megaphone, it's no stretch to say the wheels are turning. But before Raleigh gets in too deep, it's worth asking whether we need this thing. For that matter, do we even want this thing?

When you scratch the surface, there are lots of reasons why we might not.

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