Discussion of Ferguson-related issues continued to simmer this week. Meanwhile, questions about the Rams’ future boiled into prominence.
Oddly, the two conversations are happening mostly in isolation from each other, even though both revolve around the same fundamental concern: How to create a future for our region that will make St. Louisans want to stay and newcomers want to come?
Or maybe it’s not so odd. There’s long been a double standard in civic discourse. When the questions involve the essentials — schools, jobs, public transportation and the like — proponents are expected to justify public expenditures and private initiatives in rigorous cost-benefit terms. When the question involves sports, eyes glow with excitement and the justification revolves around the region’s need to maintain a buzz-worthy image.
I just don’t get it.
Perhaps because I’m not much of a pro football fan, I’m immune to the frisson of fear that some feel when they hear that the Rams might move. Even the Cardinals’ hold on the region’s heart stirs my skepticism. Do commercial sports franchises deserve the loyalty fans so generously bestow? I can’t shake the suspicion that owners are exploiting civic pride for profit.
Rams’ owner Stan Kroenke certainly wasn’t returning the love this week. His partner in a project near Los Angeles announced progress on development plans that could include a stadium. Moving the Rams has seemed likely ever since the Dome was found to be not posh enough to satisfy the terms of their contract.
Back when the deal was signed, St. Louisans were desperate to lure them here. Now we’ll see how desperate we are to keep them. Against the backdrop of Ferguson, the question takes on deeper dimensions.
We have a limited supply of public and private resources, so in one sense it’s an either-or choice. The civic effort that would be needed to keep the Rams would come at some expense to the civic effort that would be needed to build better neighborhoods.
But in another sense, civic resources are not a zero sum game. The money and energy that might be mobilized to keep the Rams wouldn’t necessarily be available to improve the Normandy schools. And if a new stadium is built for the Rams on the near north side of St. Louis — a possibility that is being discussed — that might have direct economic benefits for the surrounding neighborhood and spinoff positives for the region.
Still, you have to wonder whether we’d get more long-term bang for the buck by investing directly in the people who live in blighted neighborhoods — in schools, jobs and transportation that would improve their prospects.
Before we jump to building a new stadium for the Rams, perhaps we should use their potential departure as the impetus to build something of more lasting value. What we need to build is a new way to make wise choices about the consequential, complicated questions we face. As difficult as it may be, we need to weigh how to best use our limited civic resources for maximum impact.
In a region as fragmented as ours, the challenge is huge. Yet so is the benefit of addressing these questions directly and of developing the civic connections that sustain a robust, widely inclusive debate.
If we’ve learned anything in the months since Michael Brown’s death, it’s that progress is impossible unless those who have felt disenfranchised are heard. Let’s find ways to channel many voices and viewpoints into the productive conversation we’ve never really had about how to shape a future we are all proud to share. The question of the Rams is as good a place as any to start.