The coming fight over soccer stadium plan

Evy Mages/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST - Ed Lazere, executive director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, outside Nationals Park. Lazere, a critic of the deal to build the park, is now considering how the city can get a better deal for a proposed soccer stadium in Southwest.

It’s not that Ed Lazere doesn’t like popcorn or peanuts or the national anthem or the roar of the crowd when the home team wins.

He does. He just doesn’t think stadiums are a very good public investment.

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Lazere, executive director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, was one of the District’s foremost critics of the city spending hundreds of millions of dollars to build a Major League Baseball stadium in Southeast. Now, five years after it opened, he is primed to play a similar role in a coming battle over whether the District should spend $150 million or more to build a soccer stadium a few blocks away in Southwest.

Lazere was the first hire when a left-leaning think tank, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, created the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute as a local offshoot in 2001, and shortly thereafter, he was named executive director.

“They couldn’t find someone who would be willing to come on as executive director for as little money as me,” he said.

He has grown his staff to seven, and has become an expert on the District’s budget. He frequently testifies before the D.C. Council to argue on behalf of low- and middle-income residents for more progressive taxes, a stronger safety net and better schools, housing, health care and job training. His annual budget tool kit is must-reading for any advocate looking to press a budget concern with the council.

There is little question that Lazere’s highest profile battle was over Nationals Park. He was the budget cruncher for the opposition, providing ammunition in long council debates for stadium opponents David A. Catania (I-At large) and Adrian M. Fenty, then a plucky young council member from Ward 4 who later became mayor.

Lazere ultimately lost the fight. After initially backing a plan to finance just 50 percent of a ballpark for the then-Montreal Expos, the council made a number of capitulations and the District agreed to foot the bill for a $700 million stadium — a price tag far bigger than originally expected.

Still, Lazere is not about to concede defeat.

“We clearly influenced the debate,” Lazere said. “The fact that the initial vote on the legislation was to require only 50 percent public financing shows that the wishes of D.C. residents were in fact against paying for the entire stadium. Of course the council reversed themselves three days later.”

Mixed results

Lazere said that although no definitive study has been done, it’s unlikely that investment has paid off.

Council members including Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), chair of the finance committee and one who often plays Lazere’s foil, frequently attribute the resurgence in near Southeast to the ballpark. But development has been as stop-and-go as the team’s progress. Although some 650 apartments are under construction, surface parking lots are still abundant, a massive hole remains on Half Street from a failed development deal and an office building nearby has been empty since the day it was completed two-and-a-half years ago.

Lazere hopes the city has learned from its battles with Major League Baseball honchos, such as Chicago White Sox’s Jerry M. Reinsdorf, then-chairman of baseball’s relocation committee, and Theodore N. Lerner, owner of the Nationals.

“It’s the same fundamental tenets. Is this a good deal for the city? Is this what we want to spend $150 million or possibly much more on? And timing is another thing. Is this being rushed or is it being well thought through?” he said.

In his early analysis of Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s proposal to build a stadium for soccer team D.C.United, Lazere said he believes the city is at-risk of giving away more than it ought to.

Under the plan, still being finalized by City Administrator Allen Lew, the District would contribute as much as $150 million of land and infrastructure, about half the cost of a 20,000-seat stadium on Buzzard Point, in part by swapping the Reeves Center on U Street to developer Akridge.

Gray and Lew say the plan better resembles the deal to build the Verizon Center downtown, where the District contributed only land. They say the Buzzard Point deal will keep United, Major League Soccer’s franchise with the most wins, in the District, and create new tax revenue from an entertainment district around the stadium, as well as private development on U Street. No new borrowing would be required.

Lazere said a closer look at a July 25 term sheet between the team and the city, however, raises red flags. He doubts the District will get the best price for the Reeves Center without offering it to the open market. He questions why the time line needs to be so rushed, with the District expected to deliver the land and pass legislation by Jan. 1 of next year so the team can begin play in the new stadium by 2016.

The deal provides for the District to possibly share in the profits of the soccer development, but Lazere doesn’t see why taxpayers should be willing to forgo some stadium-related taxes if the team is not achieving a “reasonable profit,” as the contract stipulates, particularly when owners of sports teams typically add value to their teams with stadium deals. Before Washington secured rights to baseball, Forbes estimated the value of the Montreal Expos at $113 million. The Lerners bought the franchise for $450 million and Forbes now pegs the value of the Nationals at $631 million.

Waiting for opposition to take shape

It is still unknown what type of local coalition might suggest alternative spending priorities in the face of the stadium and who on the council, if anyone, will take Lazere’s numbers this time and run with them. One of Lazere’s staff members, former Washington Post reporter Elissa Silverman, lost a special election for an at-large seat in April.

Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), who, like Evans, is running for mayor, said she still hears from business owners who are upset at having to pay the fees that finance Nationals Park. “That was the burden of having a great team, and we are proud of them, but there are costs and businesses across the District of Columbia are bearing those costs,” she said.

She said to win her support a soccer deal will have to justify spending on the stadium over other needs. “I’ve got to be able to explain to people that we are going to spend $150 million in one part of the city for 17 games and not rebuild schools elsewhere. I have to explain to people that we’re not going to rebuild Calvin Coolidge High School, but we are going to go ahead with the stadium,” she said.

Ward 5 council member Kenyan McDuffie (D) said “I’m left at this point with more questions than answers.” He pointed to a 2007 quote from the mayor questioning a proposed $50 million publicly funded renovation of the Verizon Center, when Gray said that “there has to be a strong case for what the District taxpayers are going to get out of this.”

Lazere acknowledged that there are benefits to the Nationals Park. “The sports enthusiasm that is going on right now in D.C. is a good thing for the city, and in many ways, it is a result of the baseball stadium,” he said.

An important silver lining of the Nationals Park battle, he said, was that it spurred residents to demand school modernization projects, which have since taken place across the city (and which Lew directed).

Lazere even sees the team play now and then: “I do go to games but I don’t go very often.”

 
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