DN Editorial: Made in America fest: Where's the accounting?

Posted: August 30, 2012

THE MADE IN America festival this weekend will be like no other this city has ever seen.

Not just because of whom the city plays host to - Jay-Z, Pearl Jam, Run DMC, Jill Scott and Drake - but the fact that the city is playing host at all. That's because unlike other concert-paloozas that the city has thrown on the Parkway, including Live 8 and Welcome America, this one is not free to all comers, but only to those who have bought a ticket.

That is, it's a private event that requires lots of public accommodation and support: road closures, additional bus routes, added police presence.

We don't know what the actual public investment is - but not for lack of trying. At a news conference Tuesday, Mayor Nutter said that he couldn't get into the numbers or provide an estimate on what city money is being devoted to the concert. He did say that the concert promoters will be paying the "lion's share" of the costs. That's good, because they're the ones pocketing all the profit.

In justifying the public investment, the mayor alluded to the "goodwill" that the city will get, as well as the bump in ancillary businesses and revenue from 50,000 concert-goers coming into the city.

But we don't know why he's being so close-mouthed about what the city intends to invest. Surely, the negotiations didn't proceed without the city having some budget figure in mind.

We really don't mean to rain on this parade - er, concert. We think the cool factor for this musical lineup is pretty high. But it's fair to ask what the public investment is, how the city measures the level of investment it makes and the payoff it expects to receive, in actual numbers. Especially in a city with a budget that still hasn't been approved - thanks in part to a Fire Department arbitration that has forced the city to find an extra $200 million in the next five years.

Also, we'd like to remind the mayor that just two short years ago, he was battling with City Council members, including Maria Quinones Sanchez, over whether the city should pick up the security and crowd-control costs for community festivals and ethnic parades. At that time, Nutter said the city couldn't underwrite privately run events when it was cutting services. That's why he vetoed the bill, which Council then overrode.

Government finds many ways to subsidize things: economic-development tax credits designed to create jobs and tax revenue (like New Jersey's $218 million to the Revel casino); direct subsidies, like that to shipbuilder Kvaerner ($400 million); contributions to giant public works projects and buildings like the stadiums ($1 billion in public money) and the convention center ($500 million for the original center); as well as the many smaller subsidies for events and festivals because of the spin-off revenue as well as intangibles like goodwill and publicity. One standard for these investments is presumably the public good. But in the 21st century, with new budget realities everywhere, it could be time for some new standards. At the very least, every public dollar should be subject to higher standards of scrutiny.

The public is writing these checks. We have the right to balk at signing a blank one.

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