By Timothy Dwyer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 21, 2007
By any stretch of the imagination, G. Richard Pfitzner Stadium in Prince William County is not what anyone would describe as a jewel of a ballpark. Home to the Washington National's Class A minor league team, the 22-year-old county-owned stadium has not aged gracefully. The architectural style is best described as unembellished aluminum.
For years, Art Silber, the flamboyant millionaire owner of the team who often takes batting practice with the players and sometimes coaches first base, has been trying to persuade Prince William officials to share the cost of a new facility. He wants a 6,500-capacity stadium ready for the 2008 season, which means the county would have to approve funding for it within the next couple of months.
Plans for a $22.5 million modern ballpark have been drawn up by the architects who designed the new Dallas Cowboys stadium. An unveiling of the design is scheduled for today at a team-sponsored "hot stove banquet" in the Fair Lakes area of Fairfax County.
Tuesday, the Prince William Board of County Supervisors is planning to take up the stadium issue and hear from the public. No vote has been scheduled.
One huge obstacle stands in the way of Silber's field of dreams. Prince William, like most counties surrounding Washington, is facing a severe budget crunch. Because of the slowdown in the housing market, the county is facing an $18 million revenue shortfall, and the next fiscal year looks just as bad or worse. County number crunchers are under orders to cut about $22 million from the operating budget for the year that begins July 1.
Silber recently told the supervisors in a closed session that he believes he can sell naming rights to a new stadium for at least $10 million over 10 years. That money would be split between him and the county, significantly reducing the cost to Prince William. The county would own the stadium and lease it to the team.
Some board members said that the stadium is a luxury that the state's second-largest county cannot afford at a time when they have to make difficult decisions on which services to cut or whether they can afford to hire teachers, police officers and firefighters to keep up with the population growth. The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments has predicted that Prince William's population will increase 98 percent between 2000 and 2030, more than twice the growth rate for the rest of the Washington region.
The Potomac Nationals, Northern Virginia's only minor league team, drew an average of 2,167 fans to the 6,000-capacity stadium last season. Silber said the Woodbridge stadium is so old and so ugly that is has been rated one of the 10 worst minor league stadiums in the country. The Baltimore Orioles' minor league affiliates in Frederick and Bowie play in stadiums built in the 1990s and draw bigger crowds.
"There is no question that the budget situation is a terrifying problem," Silber said. "I wouldn't begin to say that a ballpark is more important than a schoolteacher or police officer or firefighter. But the board is allocating money to support parks and recreation and education, and we are one of those functions that is important to the county. We are affordable entertainment for the community. It isn't a question of whether it is a nice thing to do. It has to be done, otherwise there won't be baseball in the county because the existing ballpark is falling down."
He said the team has a significant economic impact on Prince William because it employs 250 people and attracts tens of thousands of fans each year who spend money in the county.
Still, he will have a tough time selling it to a board that has pledged to cut the budget instead of raising taxes in a year when all its members are up for reelection.
"I am not going to push it on the public," said Corey A. Stewart (R-Occoquan), the board chairman. "I think it is a significant decision, and we need a lot of public input. Clearly it is a long-term investment for the community. But, unfortunately, it is coming at a difficult financial time for the county."
Longtime Supervisor Maureen S. Caddigan (R-Dumfries) said she opposes funding a new stadium and was disturbed that the board discussed the stadium in private this month.
"I'm hot to trot on this issue," she said. "There is no way a stadium should be discussed at this particular time when there is a money crunch. I think it is horrific. I am not supporting a stadium. This is not something we should be looking at right now. We should be taking care of our schools and our employees."
Silber is not only facing tough opposition from some county supervisors, but he is also going up against one of the most vocal lobbying groups in the county: recreational softball players. There are three softball fields next to Pfitzner Stadium, one on the site of the proposed stadium. Many of the weeknight and weekend players don't want to give up a heavily used and well-lighted diamond even temporarily so a stadium can be built.
"I am absolutely against it," said Curt Swift, 48, of Dale City, one of the most vocal opponents of the new stadium. He plays on three softball teams and said he has a petition signed by 300 people who are against the park.
"I am offended that they are taking away something that we have so few of already in the county," Swift said. "We have 4,000 to 5,000 softball players in the eastern part of the county. There are 100 teams that play on those fields. I'm not sure that [the supervisors] view us as powerful, but we are loud enough that we can't be ignored."