Private Money for Public Projects

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1 By Paul Landow and Carol Ebdon Private Money for Public Projects

2 In the non-profit environment, a new form of philanthropy has emerged in which the contributor s role extends beyond merely providing financial support, to direct involvement with the organization s operations. This donor activism has spread to governments, as state and local jurisdictions increasingly seek private funding to supplement public dollars, and concerns have arisen regarding potential attempts by wealthy individuals to dictate policy through their donations. For example, officials in a California city were criticized for accepting a land donation from a controversial scientist who required the resulting park to be named for him. Contributions like this raise the question: Does the flow of private dollars into public projects, however well intentioned, amount to undue influence over public policy? In Omaha, Nebraska, significant private donations helped in the construction of two major city facilities, a convention center/arena and a new baseball stadium. In exchange, the donors insisted on creating a public authority to run the operations, and they required a majority of the original board to come from their ranks. In the context of democracy and representative government, economic development, and the drive for a leaner and more efficient public sector, these types of partnerships present opportunities and challenges. Examining the Omaha case can help public administrators evaluate the pros and cons of these arrangements. OMAHA S PUBLIC-PRIVATE PARTNERSHIP Omaha is home to five Fortune 500 companies, as well as other major corporations. High-ranking corporate executives have long been involved in civic affairs, but their interest in local government was historically confined to providing passive advice and financial campaign support. Recently, however, a coalition of business leaders has taken a more aggressive role in high profile municipal projects. In the 1990s, city and corporate leaders conceptualized a new convention center/arena, and a 1997 commission recommended a $275 million downtown facility. It also suggested the creation of an independent public authority, the Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority, to operate the facility and to ensure efficient management and proper maintenance. A compromise reached in fall 1999 Does the flow of private dollars into public projects, however well intentioned, amount to undue influence over public policy? called for voter approval of city bonds, the creation of MECA, private funding for $75 million of the cost, and a guarantee of no sales tax increase. An interim MECA was established, with three members named by the donors and one each appointed by the mayor and city council. The authority was meant to lend professional business expertise and would remove politics and government bureaucracy. 1 At the time, business leaders said that they could not raise $75 million in private donations for the convention center/arena without establishing a businessdominated semi-independent authority. Voters authorized the bonds and the creation of MECA in 2000, shortly after the private donors announced pledges for the full $75 million. Private funding came from approximately 30 companies, individuals, and foundations. The private money was raised by a non-profit organization established by corporate leaders to act as a conduit for their philanthropy. The new convention facility, the Qwest Center, opened in fall 2003, with a final cost of $291 million. The city was responsible for $216 million in debt, which is paid from a variety of sources, 2 while MECA controls the facility s operation through a 99-year lease agreement. The public-private partnership took on a second major project, a new baseball stadium to replace Omaha s Rosenblatt Stadium, the site for the NCAA Men s College World Series for 60 years. The National College Athletic Association gave the city a typical five-year contract, with negotiated stadium upgrades. The city willingly invested in the stadium because of the substantial economic impact of the college world series, estimated at around $40 million per year. With the city-ncaa contract due to expire in 2010, Omaha requested a longer-term contract. NCAA officials responded by suggesting a new downtown stadium to replace the aging Rosenblatt. The city and CWS Inc., a non-profit that runs the college world series event, obtained a preliminary design, resulting in a proposal to build a stadium on one of the Qwest Center parking lots. The major stumbling block was MECA. The board chair claimed that the city could not take one of their lots August 2013 Government Finance Review 57

3 without permission, even though the city s agreement with MECA allowed for development of the parking lots. City attorneys were confident of winning a lawsuit, but litigation would delay a timely agreement with the NCAA. This conflict between the city s elected leaders and the unelected board of MECA continued for three months. Pressure was added when the NCAA called for a solution agreeable to MECA, CWS Inc., and the private donors. Additionally, a corporate leader and stadium fundraiser commented that the private donors would not tolerate a court fight. These actions clearly signaled that there would be no private donations unless the city agreed to MECA terms. A prominent corporate leader eventually brokered a deal in which the city agreed not to use future litigation to take control of the remaining Qwest Center parking lots, and to replace more parking than would be lost with the stadium. The city had purchased one replacement lot as a prime development site, and MECA insisted on being involved in its future use. In addition, MECA would be responsible for the construction and operation of the new stadium. The city council approved the plan in 2008, and Omaha entered into a 25-year agreement to host the NCAA College World Series. The $140 million cost 3 was paid by private contributions ($42.95 million) and city lease-purchase bonds ($97 million). 4 The new stadium, TD Ameritrade Park, opened in THE METROPOLITAN ENTERTAINMENT AND CONVENTION AUTHORITY MECA is the public authority that managed the construction and operates both the Qwest Center and TD Ameritrade Park. MECA has a 99-year agreement with the City of Omaha for lease and operation of the Qwest Center, and a 25-year agreement for operation of the stadium. Scholarly literature notes several major concerns with public authorities and public-private partnerships, focusing on three areas: decisions regarding whether and with whom to partner, contract terms and risk sharing, and transparency and accountability. Public-private partnership deals are complex, much of the negotiation is conducted in private, without public input or understanding, and questions often arise regarding the public interest and the responsibilities of the private sector. The Partnership Decision. Studies have emphasized the need for governments to examine costs and benefits of internal versus external production of services. The role of competition is also widely discussed; contracting has been found to result in lower costs and better service when competition exists. Public-private partnerships ultimately revolve around contracts that, in any other setting, would require competitive bidding. In the Omaha case, the decision to enter into the partnerships did not include either a review of alternative methods or an interest in contract competition. When the private sector agreed to raise $75 million for the convention center/arena, donors demanded the creation of MECA, assuming that it would operate more efficiently without city government politics and that donors would maintain some control over the facility through board membership. Once this demand was made, the city made no attempt to study whether it would be more cost-effective for the city to operate the facility, hire an outside management firm, or create the public authority. The city was not in a position to argue, as it was unlikely that the facility could have been built without the private funding and without assistance in marketing the project to the public. The role of MECA in the ballpark was also inevitable. The city managed Rosenblatt stadium for decades. However, the corporate donors wanted MECA to take over operation of Rosenblatt, even before the idea of a new stadium was raised. As was the case with the Qwest Center, the donors wanted to maintain control of the facility and keep elected officials at arm s length. With the decision to build the new stadium on Qwest Center lots came the requirement that MECA be the construction supervisor and operator. The Omaha partnerships resulted in facilities that were more elaborate than could have otherwise been afforded, but decisions were made without analysis of alternative operating options. It is too soon to judge stadium outcomes, but the Qwest Center is considered to be highly successful. However, it is unknown whether the public authority model provides the most efficient method of operating these facilities because other alternatives were not considered. 58 Government Finance Review August 2013

4 Contract Terms and Risk Sharing. A key aspect of a public-private partnership is the degree to which risk is shared between the parties. Shifting risk from government to the private sector is often cited as a major reason for the partnership, but in many cases, the government s risk is not reduced as much as expected. In the Omaha case, MECA makes all the operating and management decisions but has no debt repayment risk that risk falls to the city taxpayers. The private funders were concerned with asset maintenance, so MECA retains operating profits for the Qwest Center and has built up a substantial reserve fund for major capital needs, and a capital reserve fund was included in the stadium agreements. Additionally, the long-term agreements increase risk to both parties because there is no way to anticipate issues that may arise over decades. MECA can operate the Qwest Center as a private business, and it has done very well in generating strong operating profits. But profits have largely come from arena events, rather than conventions, which would have provided a greater economic boost to the community and higher debt payment revenues for this facility, as well as the city-owned convention hotel across the street. For this reason, operating the facility like a business has sometimes meant maximizing profits at the expense of city taxpayers. The risk to the city with the stadium is somewhat less than what it faces with the Qwest Center. Omaha has 60 years of financial experience with the College World Series. The city is responsible for debt, but the contracts with the NCAA and MECA were designed so that debt has the highest priority, and it will be repaid by the end of the contract. But the NCAA and MECA have less risk than the city. The NCAA receives a guaranteed annual payment and the vast majority of any revenues over the anticipated amount. If stadium revenues are insufficient to pay the guarantee, however, the non-profit CWS Inc. is financially responsible for it, which likely means that private donors and/or the city would need to assist with the payment. that was not under city control and would not have to follow public personnel, procurement, or open record laws. For example, questions arose regarding contract awards. Leaders of the fundraising efforts were current or former executives of Kiewit Corporation, and Kiewit was awarded the construction management contract for both facilities. An insurance executive who was a MECA board member insures the Qwest Center. MECA was designed to function with business-world efficiency and to not be slowed by government bureaucracy. But the level of public accountability was not clearly defined. Government officials are accustomed to working in the open, with scrutiny from citizens and the news media, so conflict was inevitable. Another question centered on control and use of profits. Like many cities, Omaha has fiscal challenges and struggles to fund its pension plans, buy police cruisers, keep libraries open, and maintain facilities. Meanwhile, MECA has built a large operating reserve that has been used for a major expansion plan, with no input from elected officials or the public. The interests of the public authority and citizens are not always mutually exclusive, but sometimes that is indeed the case. This is particularly true of operating philosophies that favor MECA s bottom line at the expense of local economic development. Maximizing MECA profits by bringing in more local events, rather than conventions, is detrimental to hotels and restaurants, and, therefore, to city tax revenues. Transparency and Accountability. Issues related to transparency and accountability are common with public-private partnerships and public authorities. Deals are complex, much of the negotiation is conducted in private, without public input or understanding, and questions often arise regarding the public interest and the responsibilities of the private sector. City officials originally intended MECA to be subject to municipal rules, but the private donors insisted on a board August 2013 Government Finance Review 59

5 The relationship between the city and MECA has often been tense, and though all parties have benefited, a number of issues have arisen regarding democratic governance. CONCLUSIONS Many in the community have judged the Omaha public-private partnerships successful. It is unlikely that these facilities would have been built without the private donors. The Qwest Center facility is spectacular, and operations have been more profitable than expected. In addition, the new stadium allowed Omaha to obtain an unprecedented 25-year agreement with the NCAA to host the Men s College World Series. These projects have contributed to important economic development for the entire metropolitan area, and especially in the north downtown neighborhood. Further, the flexibility that allows the public authority management to make quick decisions has undoubtedly assisted in booking some key events. However, the partnerships have not always been smooth, largely because of unanticipated circumstances that were not addressed in the agreement that created the public authority risks that seem to be borne more heavily by the taxpayer than by MECA or other partners and questions related to accountability. In addition, little competition was seen in this case: alternative models were not considered, contracts were awarded to major donors and stakeholders, and the philanthropists insisted on the creation and control of MECA as the vehicle for constructing and operating the new facilities. Whether this arrangement is the most efficient or effective is unknown. Studies have emphasized the need for governments to examine costs and benefits of internal versus external production of services. Interest from the business sector in government, and specifically in large public capital projects, is not new. The importance of this case stems from the fact that private contributions were key ingredients in completing public projects, and those contributions came with a long-term price of explicit private control through a public authority. The question of whether accepting private contributions for a public facility is appropriate and in the interest of the citizen can only be answered on a caseby-case basis. The same holds true for the establishment of a public authority to operate a public facility. Public amenities such as stadiums, convention centers, arenas, and convention hotels are regularly being built and remodeled around the country. In addition, anecdotal evidence points to an increasing role for donations in financing state and local government, which is likely to lead to an expanded decisionmaking role for the donors. The Omaha experience may help public administrators as they consider whether public-private partnerships involving private contributions and/or public authorities are appropriate for their jurisdictions. y Notes 1. R. Dorr, Two backing board plan for arena, Omaha World Herald, October 18, Sources include existing property and sales tax, seat tax, increased hotelmotel tax, parking income, and newly generated state sales tax from conventions. 3. The total includes $11.95 million to pay off the existing Rosenblatt Stadium debt and donate that site to the zoo. 4. Sources include increased taxes on hotel/motel rooms and car rentals, Keno funds, funding previously dedicated for Rosenblatt Stadium, ticket sales, naming rights, suites and club seats, seat tax, parking revenues, and advertising. The combined cost of the two projects was more than $400 million, for which the taxpayers are mostly responsible. Further, taking on this debt meant that money was unavailable for other city projects. The stated donor goal of minimizing politics has not materialized; in fact, politics have been prominent, and often ugly and heavy-handed. Lack of transparency has been an ongoing issue, as has the debate over MECA s mission, the extent to which private, rather than public, interests are best served by MECA, and the limited ability of elected officials to have a voice in the use of city-owned property and profits from these facilities. PAUL LANDOW is an assistant professor in the political science department at the University of Nebraska Omaha, and the former chief of staff to the mayor of the City of Omaha. He can be contacted at CAROL EBDON is a professor in the School of Public Administration at the University of Nebraska Omaha, and the former finance director for the City of Omaha. She can be reached at For additional information, see: Paul Landow and Carol Ebdon, Public- Private Partnerships, Public Authorities, and Democratic Governance, Public Performance and Management Review, vol. 35, no. 4 (June 2012). 60 Government Finance Review August 2013

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