For its first 10 years, Veterans Stadium was, as its architect called it, the “Crown Jewel of Philadelphia”—hyperbole, perhaps, but at least it could stand as the crown jewel of Pattison Avenue. Then, as stadiums do, the Vet became stale, yesterday’s state-of-the-art, and insufficient to the demands of the Phillies, Eagles, and their fans. Thirty-two years after it was constructed, the Vet was demolished, relegated to a place of nostalgia and perpetually written about as a place people associated with “fond memories.”
But the wistful can find comfort here: The Vet is still very much alive—on the city’s debt service list.
Nearly 50 years after the initial $25 million dollar bond was approved in 1964, the city is still paying for the construction of a stadium that no longer even exists, making Veterans Stadium one of two of the oldest debts on the books, according to available bond data and interviews with the Controller’s Office. The other debt, also wrapped in the same $162 million loan authorized on the 1964 ballot, is the SEPTA expansion of the El to the Northeast and the Broad Street Line to Pattison—constructed to service the Vet.
The remaining balance on the Vet has been paid down to $183,000, and the city still owes more than $1 million on the subway expansion. Both projects were financed with 30-year bonds, putting them about 20 years behind repayment schedule, but have been refinanced multiple times, most recently in 2012, allowing the city to defer payment. Bond data indicate that the Vet will finally be paid off sometime in 2014, and the subway not until at least 2022.
“It’s not typical, but it’s not unusual” says Rick Eckstein, a professor of sociology at Villanova who co-authored the 2003 book Private Stadiums, Public Dollars with Temple professor Kevin J. Delaney. For example, after Pittsburgh demolished Three Rivers Stadium in 2000 after 30 years of use, it was still paying off the initial debt by the time the Pirates had moved to PNC Park and the Steelers to Heinz Field.
Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, says Eckstein, both aligned themselves with a familiar theme and chronology of American stadiums: Multipurpose stadiums were built in the 1970s, then demolished at the turn of this century in favor of stadiums that were sport-specific, catering to an illusion of economic development that has been, says Eckstein, widely debunked.
The problem is that the stadiums aren’t self-supporting, so team owners have to subsidize their construction with bonds that are repaid with public subsidies. And the Vet was financed multiple times, first in 1964 and again in the early 1970s (for reasons that neither the bond nor City Council explained), making it difficult, if not impossible, to determine which refinancing pertains to which bond.
“When issuing a bond to build a facility, the debt payment on that bond should not outlast the facility,” said Harvey Rice, the deputy controller. When asked why it happened in this case, Rice replied, “I don’t know. But the treasurer should be able to tell you that.”
The Office of the City Treasurer would not provide data or comment on how much money has ultimately been paid on the Vet since its original 1964 financing.