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August 19, 1990
"'Free Riders,' Community-builders Differ on Stadium"
San Jose Mercury News
By Timothy Taylor
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CALIFORNIA votes on everything. Seventeen propositions were on the ballot in June; at least 18 are coming this November.

But here in Santa Clara County, we've had to sweat blood for a chance to vote on building a baseball stadium. Now, in the brief hiatus between the battle to put a stadium on the ballot and the battle over the stadium itself, it's a good time to consider why some cities were willing to put the stadium on the ballot, while others were not. After all, every city presumably has other possible uses for the money, along with roughly the same proportion of baseball fans.

The nearby table provides some hints. The first two columns list the population and average household income for each city in Santa Clara County. The last two columns show whether the city was a part of the Joint Powers Authority, the group which negotiated with the San Francisco Giants over a stadium, and whether the citizens of the city will have a chance to vote on the stadium.

Two connections stand out. First, larger cities were more likely to put the stadium on the ballot. Five of the seven largest cities in the county agreed to put the stadium on the ballot. Of the eight smaller cities in the county, Gilroy and Morgan Hill should be exempted from consideration, because they are not naturally neighbors for a Santa Clara stadium. But of the other six small cities, only Los Altos will put the stadium to a popular vote.

Why might this pattern exist? I suspect that Los Gatos and Saratoga and Campbell, not to mention tiny Monte Sereno and Los Altos Hills, knew that their participation wasn't critical to making the stadium happen. As a result, they had no real reason to help bear the costs, rather than devoting their energy and money to local uses.

Economists have dubbed this pattern "free riding," which simply means that you wait for others to pay the costs, and then enjoy the results. Citizens and politicians from other cities may have less neutral names for it.

The second pattern is that cities with lower incomes were more likely to put the stadium on the ballot. All the cities where the average income is below-average for the county will vote on a stadium, with the exception of Campbell. All the cities where the average income is above average for the county will not have the city on the ballot, with the single exception of (again) Los Altos.

During the stadium campaign, a certain resentment may develop from this situation: If Palo Alto and Cupertino and Los Gatos and Saratoga aren't paying, why should everyone else?

The cynical answer is that this is how the rich stay rich, but in reality, I don't think the opposition is a matter of money. After all, adding $16 per year to the utility tax, the projected amount the stadium will cost, is only about one- fortieth of 1 percent of the average Palo Alto income.

Instead, many of those opposing a stadium are standing on principle. They believe that it is frivolous, if not heartless and cruel, for government to support baseball when real-life social problems cry out for help. They believe that much of the hoopla over the Giants' possible move is simply a way to collect public money for big businessmen and real estate developers.

I think these arguments are far overstated, but if someone is set upon being holier-than-thou and more-cynical-than-thou at the same time, you can't really discuss matters with them. I suspect that the upper income classes are more susceptible to this style, and its attendant use of guilt and skepticism, than lower income classes.

So let me expose myself as a callous and naive baseball fan, and tell you about my grandmother. She lived most of her life in Cincinnati, and still roots for the Reds. (Sorry about that, Giants fans.) She can always tell you if they won last night's game, although she's not always very sure who they played. She has definite opinions about whether she likes most of the players, although I doubt she could tell you much about their batting averages or their baseball skills.

She's an illustration of the fact that major league baseball is for many more people than those who actually attend each game. It's an ongoing community soap opera. In baseball towns, interest in the games is one of the few things that cuts across lines of race and class and age, that gives strangers something in common. If you doubt it, ask someone from a baseball town like Cincinnati or St. Louis or Boston or Chicago.

After all, what else is likely to provide a shared community interest here in Silicon Valley? The occasional earthquake? Sixty hour work weeks? Fear of Japanese high tech competition?

Last year, Money magazine rated 300 cities according to their quality of life. The good news is that San Jose made the top 30, at number 29. The bad news is that it's rated one step above Las Vegas, and one step below Bergen/Passaic, N.J. When an area is ranked between Nevada and New Jersey, it should be willing to give major league baseball a chance.

This listing of cities in Santa Clara County compares the population and average incomes in cities that chose to vote on a stadium tax and those that didn't.The population is measured within a city's sphere of influence.

City Population


In Joint

Is stadium
ballot in

San Jose 806,200 $53,160 yes yes
Sunnyvale 119,000 $53,160 yes yes
Santa Clara 94,500 $50,640 yes yes
Palo Alto 68,500 $63,120 yes no
Mountain View 68,100 $47,280 yes yes
Cupertino 50,800 $66,120 yes no
Milpitas 50,000 $55,680 yes yes
Campbell 37,100 $48,480 yes no
Gilroy 33,800 $49,800 no no
Saratoga 31,500 $98,280 yes no
Los Gatos 31,000 $68,040 no no
Los Altos 29,900 $84,720 yes yes
Morgan Hill 27,900 $60,960 no no
Los Altos Hills 9,600 $131,160 no no
Monte Sereno 4,300 $102,120 no no

Source: Data on 1989 population and income from Association of Bay Area Governments. Household income is adjusted to 1990 dollars.

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