All Commentary
Friday, May 1, 1998

Let ‘Em Skate!: Defeating Local Socialism

The Story of a Proposed Ice Arena in Meridian Township, Michigan

Ordinarily, township government is pretty dull stuff, which is just the way I like it. There are enough battles to be fought over proposed federal or state power grabs. If the township sticks to issues like public safety, road repairs, and similar functions, I can peacefully coexist with it.

Unfortunately, in the summer of 1997 all of that changed in my township, Meridian Township in the northeastern suburbs of Lansing, Michigan. It changed because a group of skating (mainly hockey) enthusiasts wanted to have the township finance and build an ice arena for them. Special-interest politics had reared its ugly head. The following story may be of interest to those of you who believe in limited government and who have a desire to stop special-interest projects before they take a bite out of your wallets.

Like most northern U.S. cities, Lansing has many people who enjoy ice sports. Some of them thought that the facilities for skating and ice hockey in the area were inadequate. Parents complained of having to get up early and drive their sons as far away as Jackson (about 40 miles) for hockey practices. Even though plans were afoot to construct a large multipurpose sports complex on the west side of Lansing (privately financed), which would include two ice surfaces, and to put a dome over an existing ice rink in Lansing to make it available year round, these people wanted Meridian Township to have “its own” ice arena. They set about to get it in the manner that has now become the norm in America. They turned to government.

With the imprimatur of one member of the township board of trustees, an Ice Arena Task Force was formed, composed almost entirely of hockey enthusiasts. The job of the task force was to “study the need” for an ice arena in Meridian Township. That was like asking a group of hogs to study the need for more food in the trough.

The “study” turned out to be a telephone survey costing some $6,000 that asked a long series of sports and exercise-related questions before finally getting to the clincher: “Would you be in favor of a self-supporting ice arena in Meridian Township?” Naturally, most people said yes. Telephone surveys are notoriously self-selecting (people who weren’t interested in having their time taken up with a survey on sports probably hang up immediately) and this question is extremely leading. Nevertheless, the task force concluded and the board concurred that there was a great desire for an ice arena.

But why have this arena financed by government? Why not look for private investors? Another “study” done by the task force provided the answer. The task force surveyed ice arena managers in Michigan, and one question asked: “On a scale of one to five, do you agree or disagree with the statement that private enterprise is unable to provide ice facilities needed by the public.” Keep in mind that this is being asked of arena managers, not of people who might actually consider making such an investment. Whatever the answers might be, they shed little light on the feasibility of private ice arenas. Nevertheless, the median answer was mild disagreement with the statement. That inconvenient fact did not prevent the task force from “concluding” that the township could not look to private investment. The conclusion was inconsistent with the data, but after all, this is government at work.

The Arena and Its Financing

Having found exactly what the members of the task force wanted to find, they next set about designing their dream. The board approved their request for another $50,000 for further planning. Soon an architectural firm had drawn up plans for a splendid ice arena, complete with two ice surfaces, numerous locker rooms for the anticipated teams, comfortable seating for up to 1,500 spectators, and even press boxes. All of this, including the land-acquisition costs, could be built, the task force said, for just $8 million. The only remaining question was how should the government borrow the money.

Initially, the task force looked into the feasibility of revenue bonds, the principal and interest payments on which would come out of the arena’s revenues. The task force found that the township couldn’t sell revenue bonds, however. Investors, in other words, were unwilling to finance the project if they bore the risk. Undaunted by this slap in the face by reality, the task force went on to Plan B—limited general-obligation bonds.

Michigan requires that the taxpayers must approve bonds for which they will be obligated. Interest groups that thrive on government-financed projects hate this since the taxpayers often vote no. So, in a thus-far successful attempt to circumvent the state constitution, bond attorneys devised “limited” general-obligation bonds, which become an obligation of the taxpayers only if they can’t be paid from revenues. Those bonds, they maintain, do not need to be approved by the voters. Aha! Limited general-obligation bonds it would be!

In July 1997, the Meridian board of trustees voted for the task force’s proposal to have the township sell the bonds and build the ice arena. Even though one trustee argued that the plan ought to be put to a public vote, his motion was defeated. Why bother with a vote? The people were overwhelmingly in favor of it. The phone survey said so.

The Opposition

But the law did give opponents one last chance. If enough signatures could be collected from voters (at least 10 percent) within 45 days, the bond proposal would have to be submitted to the people. A small group of citizens, including me, immediately got petitions printed and obtained the necessary signatures. Despite editorials and letters in the local paper telling people not to sign because doing so would delay progress, we managed to turn in signatures from more than 15 percent of the voters on the 45th day. A referendum there would be.

I was chosen to be the communications director for the opponents, so I would get to discuss the issue with the press and prepare the campaign materials. I decided that our best strategy would be to stay with a few arguments based on individual rights and limited government, specifically that it was wrong for the government to get involved in a project that had nothing to do with the proper functions of government; wrong for the government to force people to bear the risk on a facility that most would never use; and wrong for the government to compete with private businesses already providing ice rinks. Some of my allies questioned my reliance on libertarian arguments since many Meridian Township residents are employed by the state government or Michigan State University and the area has a liberal voting tendency. But I did not just want to stop the ice arena; I also wanted to use the dispute to make some important philosophical points.

The campaign to sway opinion ran throughout September and October. We opponents had only a small amount of money to spend, so we used it on two mailings to likely voters and relied on as much free media as we could get. As usual in special-interest battles, the proponents were well financed and spent lavishly on a political-consulting firm, a forest of yard signs, professionally prepared mailings featuring endorsements from the big-name coaches at Michigan State, a push-polling operation (phone calls to voters asking their opinions, while plying them with information to push them toward the desired opinion), and even television ads. Meridian Township is only a small fraction of the Lansing TV market, but the supporters had the money and spent it.

The Campaign

The attempt to get people to vote in favor of the bond plan is an object lesson in the ways in which special-interest groups attempt to get something at public expense. They:

  • Misstated the issue. The pro-arena forces adopted the slogan “Let ‘em skate” and used it incessantly in their advertising. But whether people should be permitted to skate, as this slogan implies, was not the issue at all. As we pointed out at every opportunity, there were already indoor and outdoor skating rinks in Lansing, with more under construction. People could skate. The real issue was whether all township residents should be forced to bear the risk—since operating losses could lead to tax increases—for a project that would be of no benefit to most of them. But in politics, a cute slogan works much better than serious, honest argumentation.
  • Ignored opposing arguments. To respond to opposing arguments is to get sucked into playing the game by the wrong set of rules. Serious debate is to be avoided since it is apt to get people thinking about real issues. Therefore, arena proponents did not respond when our side pointed out, among other things, that the bonds would force people who had no interest in skating to bear risk for the project; that the “survey” was bogus; that the township’s financial adviser had said the task-force projections on costs and revenues were overly optimistic; that a new private developer had already signed contracts to serve much of the skating demand; and that caving in to this special-interest group would set a bad precedent. We set up a debate and invited a spokesman from the other side to appear, but he refused to do so.
  • Impugned the motives of their opponents. In politics, having the appearance of pure motives is extremely important. Therefore, if you can tag your opponents with the “nasty people” label, you increase the likelihood of success. The ice arena’s backers played this card over and over. Those who were against the arena were said to be “antiprogress,” “antifamily,” and “greedy.” If you didn’t want the ice arena, you were against “wholesome recreational opportunities for children.”
  • Made indefensible claims. The arena forces knew that many voters were concerned about the possibility of a tax increase if the arena failed to live up to its rosy projections. In an effort to allay those fears, their communications stated repeatedly, “The arena will be self-supporting.” One flyer even claimed that the project was “programmed to cover its costs.” Of course, we said that these claims were absurd. You can no more “program” a government investment in a sports facility to cover its costs than a business can “program” any of its investments to cover its costs. But in politics you can say anything to get people to side with you, with no fear of any liability for false or misleading statements.
  • Hid behind platitudes. American voters have a well-deserved reputation for falling for coercive measures as long as they come coated in platitudes. In this instance, the arena backers said that their project would be “good for the community.” It would “bring families together.” One letter even said that the arena would help to combat global warming! Just focusing on the first of these, we pointed out that communities are just abstractions without feelings or desires. Things can only be good (or bad) for individuals. Skaters may think that their pet activity creates “a better community,” but so do many opera lovers, garden enthusiasts, tennis players, and other assorted aficionados. The case for subsidizing skating is no better than the case for subsidizing anything else.
  • Peddled non sequiturs. A non sequitur is an argument where the conclusion does not follow from the premises. During the arena campaign, backers frequently argued that Meridian Township ought to have “its” ice arena because many other Michigan municipalities do. But just because something has been done elsewhere proves neither that it is right nor that it will succeed.

The Decision

The vote was November 4, 1997. The bond question was the only one on the ballot. After weeks of being bombarded by the campaign I have described, how would the voters decide?

A total of 3,092 votes were cast in favor of the plan, showing that the willingness to use coercion to achieve one’s ends is alive and well. However, 5,333 residents voted against it, an ignominious defeat: 63 to 37 percent. Despite their mendacious, costly campaign, the arena proponents were humiliated.

We can only speculate about the reasoning of the “no” voters. Some, at least, understood that the issue was the proper role of government and agreed with me that government should not do for people what they can do for themselves. More, probably, were just averse to any more government debt. Nevertheless, arguments rooted in libertarian principles were the foundation of our attack on the bond plan. They helped to block this proposed expansion of government.

Epilogue: Three months after the defeat of the ice arena, a company in the sports-facilities business announced that it would build an arena in Meridian Township, spending less than the task force plan called for and creating no risk for the taxpayers. Lesson: Don’t rush to the government to get what you want.

  • George Leef is the former book review editor of The Freeman. He is director of research at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.