THE POSSIBLE RETURN OF THE DALLAS COWBOYS to their 1960 birthplace at Fair Park seemed so right that you just knew it was going to go wrong. Until the Cowboys moved to an Irving freeway intersection in 1971, they were Dallas’s team—all of Dallas, not just the rich suburbs—and certainly not America’s team. But with the announcement in August that the team’s new home would be Arlington, which isn’t even in Dallas County, the dream died, doomed by the laws of physics: the collision of an irresistible force like Cowboys owner Jerry Jones with an immovable object like Dallas mayor Laura Miller and the political inertia that resulted.

Jones had been casting about for at least eight years to find a city in North Texas willing to lean on its taxpayers to finance a retractable-dome stadium for the Cowboys, whose current home, Texas Stadium, is one of the oldest in the league. Its famous hole in the roof (so God can watch his favorite team) creates heat and glare and renders it unsuitable for hosting a Super Bowl. When Miller proposed last spring that the team return to Fair Park, Jones must have figured he’d found a live one. What he failed to reckon was that Miller was working her own angle. Revitalizing Fair Park and its crumbling southeast Dallas neighborhood is one of the mayor’s three big-fix projects for Dallas, the other two being reviving downtown and developing the Trinity River Corridor. Having the Cowboys as a tenant would accelerate the remaking of Fair Park, but the negotiations collapsed as soon as Jones presented the bill to Miller and the Dallas County commissioners. He wanted city and county taxpayers to cough up $425 million, almost two thirds of the stadium’s total cost of $650 million, in addition to paying for the infrastructure and donating the land. When Miller and the county officials balked, Jones offered to split the cost, fifty-fifty. Miller recalls her response: “I said, ‘You’re crazy.'”

Crafty is more like it: crafty, greedy, and relentless. In 1996 Jones tried to persuade voters in Irving to pull out of DART, the region’s mass-transit system, so that the city could free up its one-cent sales tax for a referendum to renovate Texas Stadium and add a retractable roof. He even financed an anti-DART campaign and offered to provide $2 million a year for two years to help Irving establish a transportation system. By a margin of 57 percent to 43 percent, voters chose mass transit over a new playground for the Cowboys. Fort Worth Star-Telegram writer Mitchell Schnurman labeled the vote “a great call by the great unwashed.”

When it became apparent that Irving was not going to lie down for the Cowboys, Jones began making eyes at Arlington, which has traditionally been a soft touch for sports entrepreneurs. In the early nineties the Texas Rangers sweet-talked the city into subsidizing the Ballpark in Arlington, now named Ameriquest Field. A few years later, the Dallas Mavericks basketball team and the Dallas Stars hockey team flirted with Arlington until Dallas caved and built the American Airlines Center. Arlington backed away from a Cowboys deal four years ago, but in July, just as it appeared that some Dallas County officials might be going wobbly on a Fair Park stadium, Cowboys fans awakened to discover that Arlington had ambushed Big D.

Or maybe Arlington ambushed itself. The city agreed to pay half the cost of a new stadium if Arlington voters approve a tax increase on sales, hotel rooms, and car rentals in a referendum that Jones insisted be held in November. His platoon of political consultants believes the election will draw large numbers of young voters not yet reflexively opposed to taxpayer support for football. Before the deal was even official, Arlington voters were opening glossy four-page mailers from Jones’s propaganda machine promising that the stadium would be “an economic win for Arlington.” The brochure was nearly identical to one that Jones had mailed to Dallas voters four months earlier.

Until Arlington capitulated, the Dallas media had been fairly indifferent to the idea of a new stadium at Fair Park. That changed overnight. In an editorial titled “Major Fumble,” the Dallas Morning News blasted Miller and the commissioners for squandering “a once-in-a-generation opportunity” and urged them to get back in the game. Let me pause here to remind the Morning News, and Cowboys fans as well, that just because Miller didn’t choose to play Jones’s game doesn’t mean she fumbled. Quite the contrary. Nearly every study on the cost-benefits of public stadiums has reached the same sad conclusion: Franchise owners promise the moon but deliver mostly pixie dust. Andrew Zimbalist, a professor of economics at Smith College and co-author of Sports, Jobs & Taxes: The Economic Impact of Sports Teams and Stadiums, told me that there is no evidence whatsoever that taxpayer-financed sports facilities are a wise investment. “The only way it is likely to pay off economically is if the project involves other things,” Zimbalist said. “Brooklyn, for example, has made a deal with the owner of the New Jersey Nets to build an arena, but the arena is only one fifth of a $2.5 billion project of offices, residential units, and retail space.”

On her vacation in July, Miller read a page-turner called Public Dollars, Private Stadiums: The Battle Over Building Sports Stadiums, which finds that most sports teams have given up trying to peddle the economic benefits of publicly financed stadiums. A few years ago the Yankees were demanding that New York pay half the cost of a new park, but recently the team announced plans to build a $700 million open-air stadium with its own money. That’s why Miller finds it fascinating that Jones is still trying to run his con on Arlington. “All they have to do,” Miller told me, “is walk over to the Ballpark and see there is nothing happening.” The area just south of the Ballpark—the very spot where Arlington plans to build the new Cowboys facility—is a blighted neighborhood with the highest crime rate in the city. All the promised offices, high-rises, and retail shops that were supposed to line a river walk and border a man-made lake never materialized. Similar promises were made to Irving when Texas Stadium was built with local sales tax revenue. What you see today is a parking lot that stretches to the horizon. Cities that splurge on stadiums enjoy a certain cachet of civic pride, but the only real winners are wealthy team owners. In most cases, the team ends up owning the stadium once the bonds are retired, which greatly enhances the value of the franchise, at taxpayer expense. It’s worth remembering that managing general partner George W. Bush parlayed an original $606,000 stake in the Rangers into almost $15 million when the team and its sparkling new stadium were sold to Tom Hicks for $250 million.

When Miller was a firebrand columnist for the Dallas Observer, she loved to blister then-mayor Ron Kirk and the city council for giving tax dollars to projects like the American Airlines Center. In fact, the AAC is the reason she stopped writing about politics and started practicing it. In February 1998 Miller saw a front-page photograph in the Morning News of Kirk with his arms around two multimillionaire sports-team owners, Hicks and Ross Perot Jr. “They had struck a deal, and it made me sick,” Miller told me one afternoon in August in her fifth-floor office at city hall. Her first instinct was to attack the arena in her column; then she realized that the only way she could make a difference was “to go down to city council and participate in this madness.” When her husband, state legislator Steve Wolens, argued that running for a seat on the council was a bad idea, she pleaded, “Please! I have to see what happens to their brains when they go down to city council. They change.” Even now, in her first full term as mayor, the mere mention of the AAC causes Miller’s eyes to spark and blaze. “They show all the pretty watercolors of the private development that they will build once the arena opens, and then nothing ever happens,” she told me. She recalled her arguments just before the council voted to approve $43 million for mixed-use development around the AAC: “They tell us they’re going to have a store, including a Wolford, where they sell French panty hose for fifty dollars a pair. Well, I talked to Wolford in New York, and you couldn’t get a Wolford next door to a basketball arena at any price.” The mixed-use complex has never gotten off the drawing board.

In the Cowboys’ defense, they are not pretending the stadium will lead to new development; rather, they are selling the sizzle of hosting big and profitable events such as the Super Bowl, the NCAA Final Four, and maybe even the Texas-OU game. They promise that Arlington will reap billions in economic impact and cite the $330 million that they say Houston pocketed for hosting the Super Bowl last February. A cost-benefit study commissioned by the City of Arlington estimates that a Cowboys stadium would generate $238 million a year in economic impact, but other experts in the field claim that the study uses faulty assumptions and poor methodology. Andrew Zimbalist called the report “standard puffery.”

Miller is not averse to helping business. Looking out her office window, she pointed out dozens of skyscrapers sitting vacant. “See the one with that art deco clock tower?” she asked, indicating the Mercantile Bank building, which was once a downtown showplace but has been vacant now for nearly ten years. “We put $21 million on the table for any developer willing to redo it.”

Miller puts a higher priority on her big-fix projects than on a new taxpayer-financed stadium. The Trinity has been an eyesore and a disgrace since 1932, when the city rechanneled the river as a flood-control project. Since then, the section of the river that flows through downtown has been a muddy, smelly concrete ditch, a hangout for derelicts and a repository for old truck tires and abandoned refrigerators. As a council member in 1998, Miller voted against the original Trinity River plan because it was mostly a highway project. As mayor, however, she commissioned a drastic redesign: The new plan is a greenbelt of lakes, a forest, a white-water course, playing fields, boardwalks, jogging trails, footpaths, and meadows, resulting in a public space ten times the size of New York’s Central Park. The river will be returned to its original meandering course, except for a couple of lakes. The first of three suspension bridges, all designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, will break ground in September 2005. It will be followed by a gleaming white forty-story arch of cables and spires. “I’m not going to spend $325 million on a football stadium for eight home games a year, but we’ll spend much more than that on the Trinity,” Miller told me. “To the whole world outside Texas, we are Southfork and the Dallas Cowboys. That’s what we are. But I promise you, this will change our image.”

Jones has kept a low profile during the stadium hustle, leaving the political advisers to work under the direction of his eldest son, Stephen. Stephen told Miller that the Cowboys could get $10 million a year for stadium naming rights. Over thirty years, that’s $300 million. Then they get another $100 million from the NFL stadium fund. That’s $400 million. Negotiations should have started with the question, How do we get the other $250 million? But that’s not how Jerry Jones operates, not as long as he’s got a supply of patsies. However, Arlington residents may be tiring of the patsy role. Since approving the baseball stadium in 1991, voters have repeatedly rejected bond issues. The largest city in America without public transportation, Arlington voted down mass transit in 2002.

I hope that Jones reconsiders Fair Park, because it’s the perfect location for everyone—the fans, the city of Dallas, all of North Texas, and the Cowboys, especially given their place in history and status as a class organization. Set against the glittering skyline of a revitalized downtown, connected to a handsome river and the Great Trinity Forest, the stadium could be part of a grand entertainment district and a benefactor to a part of Dallas that’s always gotten the short end. Do I think it will happen? Not really. I don’t believe that Jones was ever interested in Fair Park or Dallas. It was just a wedge to try to separate first Irving and then Arlington from their own good judgment.