D.C. United Must Chip In to Get Stadium, Fenty Says

Ward 8 residents are pushing to use a soccer stadium as a catalyst to develop Poplar Point, along the Anacostia River.
Ward 8 residents are pushing to use a soccer stadium as a catalyst to develop Poplar Point, along the Anacostia River. (By Alexandra Garcia -- Washingtonpost.com)
By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 15, 2008

D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty said yesterday that he would support a public subsidy for a new professional soccer stadium if the team also invested in the project, stating that he opposed spending public money on the Washington Nationals' $611 million ballpark because the deal was too "one-sided."

Fenty (D) made his comments at a news conference near the site where the project would be built along the Anacostia River. He sought to temper expectations about his administration's commitment to creating a new home for D.C. United, saying no deal had been struck for a proposed 27,000-seat stadium at Poplar Point, a 110-acre swath of neglected parkland.

Yet talk of a new stadium brought swift and divided reaction from residents, business leaders and activists, foreshadowing a replay of the protracted debate over the baseball stadium.

On Wednesday, Fenty told D.C. Council members in a private meeting that he was considering using up to $20 million a year in excess tax money being raised for the Nationals' ballpark to fund $150 million in construction bonds for a soccer stadium. The city also would lease 11 acres, valued by administration officials at $40 million, to United, bringing the public subsidy to $190 million.

"No one ever said there could not be public dollars" for baseball, said Fenty, who voted against the baseball package as a council member. "We said it had to be a fair deal. The baseball deal was completely one-sided. I would never support a deal that is 100 percent city-funded. I would support a deal that is a public-private partnership. Have we seen that deal yet? No."

D.C. government officials and a source close to United's owner, Victor B. MacFarlane, said the team would pay a significant amount of money toward construction, but they declined to be specific.

At the news conference, Fenty announced that Clark Realty of Bethesda had been selected as the master developer for Poplar Point, federal property in Ward 8 that is being transferred to the District. Clark has proposed a $2.5 billion mixed-use development with housing, offices, retail space, a 70-acre park mandated by the federal government, an environmental museum and business hub, and a "deck" that connects Anacostia to the new development. A soccer stadium is optional in the plan.

Fenty did not mention the stadium until it was brought up by council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), who supports the plan.

Barry and a dozen civic activists who attended the news conference said the stadium would spur long-awaited development in their ward. Residents, many of whom criticized Fenty for breaking off negotiations with MacFarlane last summer, chanted "Four more years!" as Barry thanked Fenty for "listening to the community."

The stadium "will be an anchor for all the other activity taking place," said James Bunn, head of the Ward 8 Business Council.

But business leaders, environmentalists and social activists raised concerns.

Since 2004, the largest D.C. businesses have been paying a special tax toward the 30-year construction bonds for the baseball stadium project. The debt could be retired several years early if the excess tax money is not used for other projects, according to a recent analysis by D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi, and the special business tax could be discontinued.

James C. Dinegar, president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, said businesses are upset that the council is moving forward with legislation that would require paid sick leave for all workers. He said the Board of Trade would consider the soccer stadium proposal if the city presents a cost-benefit analysis that shows a healthy upside.

But retiring the debt early "is always a prudent business move," Dinegar said. "Obviously, the economy looms large right now. There is unpredictability in the near future and long term. The cost to doing business in the District of Columbia continues to climb."

Barbara Lang, president of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, said, "What we had hoped is that the bonds for baseball would be paid off earlier to relieve the business community of some of the fee."

Gandhi has cautioned city officials to begin conserving money amid a national economic downturn. He also has warned that the city is approaching its borrowing threshold on Wall Street.

Meanwhile, the coalition of environmentalists and social activists that fought the baseball stadium plan drafted a letter to Fenty and the council yesterday stating strong opposition to the soccer plan.

"At a time when the District is likely to face serious budget constraints due to a slowing economy, it is especially appalling to propose a huge subsidy for a luxury like a soccer stadium rather than investing in the basic needs of D.C. residents," the letter said.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company