Lessons of the Santa Ana Star Center

The following letter to the editor ran in Saturday’s Albuquerque Journal west side edition relating to the finances of the Santa Ana Star Center in Rio Rancho.

The fact is that arenas — even when they have full-time sports teams as tenants — are notorious for losing money. Fortunately (as an Albuquerque taxpayer) Albuquerque did not build an arena. Unfortunately, Rio Rancho cannot go back on its bad decision. The best that we can do is learn from our mistakes.

The articles that appeared recently discussing the Santa Ana Star Center’s ongoing struggles, highlights problems that are by no means unique to Rio Rancho. Around the country and locally, government officials have big dreams of using taxpayer dollars to spur development. These dreams are often shattered when they hit reality, but elected officials are at worst booted out by voters while taxpayers are left paying the bills.

The Star Center was a costly mistake that will never pay for itself, even if the so-called “multipler” of benefits to local businesses is taken into account. According to stadium expert Andrew Zimbalist of Smith College, “the independent economic research that’s been done on the question of whether such facilities have an economic impact on an area has uniformly found that there is no positive impact.”

And this is for cities that have major league sports franchises filling the venue dozens of times per year. The Star Center has struggled to find regular, full-time occupants.

This is not to beat up on the Star Center or even the Rio Rancho officials who brought us this mess, but to spur the public – both in Rio Rancho and in Albuquerque – to recognize that spending 6.5 percent of your annual budget on a sports arena or events center is a bad idea.

Government should take care of the basics while leaving costly amenities like arenas and events centers to the private sector.

Paul J. Gessing
President
Rio Grande Foundation

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4 Replies to “Lessons of the Santa Ana Star Center”

  1. My recollection is that the idea of an area sports stadium was originally floated by Mayor Marty in his second or third term. He wanted to put an expensive stadium downtown but met resistance from just about everyone. While Albuquerque was debating the pros and cons of putting a sports stadium downtown, Rio Rancho acted quickly and built the Star Center before Albuquerque made up its mind. Rio Rancho is paying the price for its hasty and expensive decision.

  2. Let’s don’t forget that at the time the Center was built, RR was one of the fastest growing urban areas in the nation. To keep up with the pace of population growth and provide the infrastructure needed to support population growth you need to build and build fast. Maybe building the venue wasn’t too far out of line. If you don’t build, you get dinged for not taking initiative. If you do build, the economy dumps and your stuck with nice modern stadium that’s underutilized. Hindsight is always 20/20.

    1. Not so much. These arenas are known losers when financed by the taxpayer. Absent some specific, long-term regular-use tenant, it didn’t take a crystal ball to see that this arena was going to be a white elephant and a burden upon the taxpayer.

  3. Too many casinos in the area outpay the acts which would normally come to a place like the Events Center. It is well known in the business that if you want to make real money touring – go to the casinos.

    Not building an arena in Albuquerque was a no brainer. We already have the Colliseum and the Pit and Popejoy and the Convention Center. The last thing we needed was an arena.

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