The funny thing about economic impact reports is you can make them say anything you want.
When the Rays wanted to justify a new stadium in 2008, they commissioned a study that validated their nine-figure annual economic impact. There has been some good journalism since then questioning the methodology of the Rays' study; the Times' Stephen Nohlgren pointed out spending on a baseball game is often transferred spending from other areas of the economy, not new spending.
Even the pro-baseball ABC Coalition acknowledged "economic impact studies are often overblown."
But those kind of important questions and disclosures were missing yesterday when the City of Tampa and RNC 2012 Host Committee announced its $400 million economic impact last August for the Republican National Convention.
Both the Tampa Tribune and Tampa Bay Times ran glowing reviews, and even though the stories pointed out retail, restaurants, and bars all lost out during convention time, there was little questioning the report's methodology.
Now, I'm no economist, but it was easy to see the report was using robust sales tax receipts from outlying counties (Polk, Pasco, Manatee) to make up for slow sales numbers in the convention's host county, Hillsborough.
In fact, if sales tax numbers compared to the rest of the state indicate how the RNC affected a local economy, we should blame the RNC for Hillsborough County's bad August sales tax receipts, which grew much slower than the state's average.
And I'm not sure how any economist can claim - at least with a straight face - that a boost in spending at places like LEGOLAND (Polk Co) or Weeki Watchee (Hernando Co) had anything to do with the RNC.
One thing is clear: Tampa did a nice job hosting the event and for an up-and-coming city, the convention was a great resume-builder. But the beautiful thing about claiming $100+ million in media impressions and other intangibles is that you can claim them and there's no tangible evidence to disprove them.
"With all my effort I have looked for evidence of any kind of economic impact from a Super Bowl or the RNC and never found any," USF economist Philip Porter told me in an e-mail. "In terms of what people in Tampa sell, including their labor, events (like the RNC) have no impact."
Don't expect Porter to land any economic impact studies anytime soon.
Nor will Field of Schemes author Neil deMause, who wrote about a pro-Oakland Athletics study back in 2010:
Ah, "economic activity," the last refuge of the economic development consultant. As I've discussed here previously, this just adds up all the money changing hands in your city, regardless of who's spending it and who's receiving it — so that if the A's double ticket prices, that's not a horrible ripoff of Oakland fans, but rather a wonderful boost to "economic activity," notwithstanding that the people actually receiving the bulk of the cash (the A's owners and players) don't live in town.Journalists live by the motto "question everything." And the more we ask about these studies, the better-informed we'll be the next time we have to make decisions about which events and institutions to spend money on.