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


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.

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