Kings Or Not, Sacto Can't Be ‘World Class’

The Maloofs should leave town and take Mayor Johnson and his blather about “world-class cities” with them.

FEB. 28, 2011

By STEVEN GREENHUT

As Sacramento Kings owners’ Joe and Gavin Maloof ponder moving their basketball team to Anaheim, Sacramento area residents and civic boosters have once again been caught up in the debate over what it takes to turn California’s capital city into what the mayor calls a “world-class city.”

Let’s be frank. With or without a professional sports franchise, Sacramento is not and will never be a “world-class city,” however one might define that term. It’s such a ridiculous, overused cliché around here that some Sacramento folks started a Facebook page dedicated to banning the phrase from local lingo. I can’t wait to hit the “Like” button.

Referring to that page last year, Sacramento News and Review columnist Cosmo Garvin rightly referred to this “world-class city” talk as the equivalent of marketing scams that convince consumers that “buying a sports-utility vehicle will make them into an outdoorsman.” It’s all hype – designed to make people feel good about their hometown, to make them vote for the politicians who promise great things and not look too closely at all the projects done in the name of achieving that grandiose and unachievable goal.

I’ve lived in a number of second- and third-tier cities and some variant of that discussion is common in all of them, although Sacramento politicians and Mayor Kevin Johnson in particular take the abuse of this term to a new level. Johnson even has a heading on the mayor’s Web site with the “world-class city” headline.

Johnson and company ignore the obvious that when civic leaders spend so much time explaining how their city can become a top-notch place, it is by definition not one now. In fact, one mark of a second-rate city is that its leaders endlessly prattle on about why they aren’t a first-rate city. I grew up in Philadelphia, where leaders had an endless inferiority complex about not being New York. They need to grow up and get over it, but I’m sure the new crop of officials there are just as fixated on the big city up the road as they were decades ago when I lived in the region.

Usually, politicians who talk this way aren’t paying attention to the nitty-gritty aspects of civic governance. They mainly are looking to boost their own stature through gimmicks rather than focusing on the real nuts-and-bolts of governance, on the things that can really improve people’s lives. Complaining why a B-tier city isn’t a destination city is as fruitful as debating why a small Central American country isn’t a global player. It’s an interesting debate over beers, but useless and boring.

Take the Sacramento Kings debacle. Second-rate cities believe that professional sports puts them on the map, although all they really do is provide some unexceptional entertainment and enrich team owners, who cleverly manipulate the local inferiority complex to gain stadium and arena subsidies. First-rate cities have a “you need us more than we need you” approach to sports, which is one reason why Los Angeles has yet to land a professional football team despite the efforts of craven politicians. You can never be a first-rate city with second-rate attitudes, yet the Sacto civic boosters have “small town mentality” written all over the foreheads.

There’s too much to do in the Los Angeles region for average folks to care a whit about luring yet another sports team. It’s only in crummy places such as Cleveland that residents self-immolate in parking lots after learning that their team has headed to another locale. I lived in Ohio when the Browns exited the state and you would have thought that an Earth-destroying meteor was headed toward the Great Lakes. Personally, I thought that my fellow Ohioans were acting like losers who had so few things in their life and such little of value in their city that they couldn’t bear the thought of losing a not-very-good football team.

In fairness, I do think Sacramento voters have shown themselves to be world class when they previously rejected stadium subsidies.

I moved to the Sacramento region in October 2009 from Southern California. It’s a nice place, but it’s not a destination. When people come here from out of town, it takes about an afternoon to show them all the interesting sights, suburbs included. After having spent five years in central Iowa, it reminds me of Des Moines, but with palm trees. That’s not an insult. Des Moines, like Sacramento, is a nice place to raise a family with relatively affordable home prices, nice old neighborhoods, some nice parks and museums, and after that it starts getting hard to come up with anything else.

It’s a government town. Few government towns are world-class, except perhaps for Washington, D.C., which is a “world-class city” mainly because of its monumental architecture and urban design.

When I talk to locals about Sacramento and why they love it, their answers are consistent. It has mild weather and is close to great destinations – San Francisco, Napa Valley and Lake Tahoe. Home prices are better than in cities along the coast. The weather argument is lost on me, spoiled as I am after 11 years in Los Angeles County. I love being close to the Bay and Tahoe also, but note in these answers that Sacramento isn’t a world-class destination. It is close to other places that are world-class destinations. There’s nothing we can do to make Sacramento such a destination, and such talk takes us away from discussions that might actually improve the local quality of life. We might as well be debating why Stockton isn’t a “world-class city,” and how it can become one. It, too, is near the Bay, the mountains and the Delta.

If we’re being honest with ourselves, Sacramento is more like Stockton with a Capitol and some nicer downtown buildings than it is like San Francisco without the ocean. There just isn’t much here that is world class aside from a world-class level of debt and waste in the state government. There isn’t anything that can be done about Sacramento’s limited fundamental attractions, even if civic boosters squander hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on new arenas and subsidized bars and restaurants along the ever-tawdry K Street Corridor. You can’t move the city from the valley to the mountains or the ocean, and you can’t change the nature of business in this company town.

It’s not just Sacramento. State capitals tend to be reflections of the ethic that predominates in state Capitols. They are places where politicians head home for the weekends and where bureaucrats rule the roost. I recall on election night, there wasn’t one happening place that I could find in the entire downtown where politicos and activists were watching election results. The Democrats were partying in Oakland and Republicans were consoling themselves in Irvine, while local gatherings were held in house parties spread across this region’s cookie-cutter suburbs. This is a city where office workers put in their 8-5 work day and go home, where they eat at chain restaurants and head to the Roseville Galleria or Home Depot. It’s like that in much of the country, although less so in “world-class” cities.

Los Angeles and San Francisco are exciting, vibrant places because they are magnets for people from all over the world. They draw in entrepreneurs, artists, literary types and techies that support the creative industries that dominate those cities. Even San Jose, bedraggled as it is, is far closer to world-class status than Sacramento ever will be because of the exciting and international nature of Silicon Valley.

After hours, downtown Sacramento is a ghost town. Actually, it’s a ghost town during the day. The downtown mall is increasingly vacant. K Street is a land of vagrants. Even blocks from the Capitol, storefronts are empty as homeless people yell at you when you walk by. Mid-town has some life, but compared to “world-class cities” – and that’s the standard Sacramento’s leaders are using – that area wouldn’t even register on anyone’s radar screen. I like the city, but these discussions are pointless and counterproductive. There are no subsidies or government policies that can change the dynamics of our region.

I’ve heard the argument that losing the Kings will make this even more of a government town. Technically, that’s true. But the tiny Kings organization is no counterweight to the hulking state bureaucracy. The franchise means nothing in the overall scheme of things. The Kings will leave and the culture of this place will change not one iota. There is nothing the team adds to the city that matters in any substantive way, although I understand why fans support their team.

Personally, I can’t wait until they leave so we don’t have to listen to the endless drama and so there’s less chance that a subsidized arena will be built.

There’s nothing wrong with Sacramento, just as there is nothing wrong with Olympia, Wash., Oklahoma City, Okla., Harrisburg, Pa., Tallahassee, Fla., Indianapolis, Ind., and Montgomery, Ala. I’ve been to these and most other state capitals and they are all fine enough places, but none of them are “world class.” Instead of envying bigger cities, civic leaders ought to talk about ways to create a great school system and fabulous neighborhoods, and a vibrant entrepreneurial economy. Those are worthy goals that many small and medium cities can exhibit, even if they will never be “world class.”

It’s time for Johnson and company to grow up.

10 comments

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  1. David from Oceanside
    David from Oceanside 1 March, 2011, 07:24

    Couldn’t agree more but could the “world Class City” be a less harmful manifestation of a much bigger problem?

    Thomas Jefferson’s vision for the US was several sovereign states with a small limited government which performed a very limited role. The role of president itself was an administrative and limited position. The federal government would mostly leave the world and its citizens alone. Where is the glory in this? Where is the national pride in this?

    Hamilton’s vision was quite different. He wanted a strong and imperial government, quite like the one we fought a war of independence against. His very active and expansive government would bring national glory and of course enrich the insiders.

    How much better off would the average man be had Jefferson’s vision won out? We can never know, but I suspect much better. National pride seems a smoke screen that allows for all kinds of abuse.

    In nearby San Diego they said the proposed new high rise city hall was necessary for civic pride. What a joke. I would have more civic pride in a city that did everything possible to keep government limited, including renting space in a nondescript industrial park on the south side of the tracks and calling that city hall if it saved taxes.

    Reply this comment
  2. larry 62
    larry 62 1 March, 2011, 08:40

    Excellent analysis Mr. Greenhut

    Reply this comment
  3. hcat
    hcat 1 March, 2011, 11:25

    Actually if you read newgeography.com, the preferred cities of opportunity for many nowadays are the non- “world class” ones. I’d live in Sacramento if I could. And the weather is better than anyplace right on the coast!

    Reply this comment
  4. Steven Greenhut
    Steven Greenhut 1 March, 2011, 11:31

    Exactly. Sacto could be a great place — a magnet of opportunity, but not by fixating on making it world class. Let’s just enhance the nice attributes it already has. Great point hcat!

    Reply this comment
  5. CalWatchdog
    CalWatchdog Author 1 March, 2011, 14:26

    John Seiler:

    What’s interesting is that Sacramento’s unemployment rate is a little higher than the overall state rate. That’s rare among state capitols. Usually they have much lower unemployment because they suck in so much taxpayer money. And the most prosperous metro area in America now is Washington, D.C., because it now grabs 25% of the national economy, much of which sticks there.

    For Sacramento, the reason probably is the ongoing state budget cuts combined with, as Steve says, little else going on.

    Reply this comment
  6. Don
    Don 4 March, 2011, 09:37

    David is discribing the Jefferson prior to becoming president. Remember Jefferson was not in the United States when the Constitution was formed. The Consittution replaced the Articles of Confederation, which created what Jefferson discribed. It should be noted that when Jefferson became president he increased the power of the presidency more than Washington and Adams had.

    Reply this comment
  7. Rachel
    Rachel 4 March, 2011, 09:40

    I agree! I have lived in the metro area for years and now the city is extremely congested. Build an area downtown? I think the city Mayor needs to focus on our Plan “B” and get over his obsession with a new arena. Maybe fix the downtown traffic. Gothem City here we come.

    Reply this comment
  8. Randall Brown
    Randall Brown 4 March, 2011, 11:34

    Well, I find areas of agreement and disagreement with these comments. I have NO issue with Sacramento not being “world class”. L.A.’s world class, but I have NO wish to LIVE there, just as I have no wish to build a half-billion arena so we can watch some semi-educated multi-millionaires play a game with the name Sacramento displayed somewhere on their jersey. Having acknowledged, that I DO take exception with this guy comparing Sacramento with Montgomery, Alabama or Oklahoma City. Give me a BREAK! We have two gorgeous rivers flowing through this town, affording us recreation few cities can boast, including L.A. (see concrete canals). Our climate may not rival L.A.’s, but Des Moines! REALLY????? Hell, Des Moines doesn’t even see leaves sprout until April! We have trees blooming in early February. Then, he compares us to STOCKTON! He needs to live in Stockton….their motto in Stockton? “The only place in the world where you hide behind a cow during a drive-by shooting!”

    Reply this comment
  9. Lynold
    Lynold 4 March, 2011, 12:50

    Who the hell wants to be world class? And be like L.A.
    Screw that. I love our city. Screw everybody else.

    Reply this comment
  10. Terry Meany
    Terry Meany 4 March, 2011, 16:39

    I cannot tell you how much I appreciate this article. It’s the only intelligent commentary I’ve read on this ridiculous preoccupation with the Sacramento Kings who are, like all other professional sports teams, an entertainment business. This hardly qualifies for tax support or other public money to continue its enterprise.

    There are myriad areas in which Sacramento can improve and prosper, none of which, for reasons that escape me, quite have the appeal to team owners of watching others toss a basketball around. Far be it for fans to actually play the game themselves.

    Reply this comment

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