Soccer Stadium Puts Fenty In a Bind

By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 17, 2008

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty is in a dicey position as he contemplates how much he is willing to invest in a new professional soccer stadium in Southeast Washington. It's not just public money that Fenty would be risking: It's his hard-earned political capital and popularity, too.

Fenty's strong stand against public financing for the Nationals' baseball stadium while he was a member of the D.C. Council damaged the popularity of then-Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and helped cement the populist reputation that bolstered Fenty's mayoral bid.

Now, Fenty is under increasing pressure from residents in Ward 8, the city's poorest area, to build a stadium there to jump-start development. A key component of his campaign platform was a pledge to address the growing economic divide in the city, particularly east of the Anacostia River, where the 27,000-seat stadium would be built.

That apparent conflict might explain why Fenty (D), during a meeting with the council last week, appeared only moderately enthusiastic, some in attendance said, as he floated a proposal to use $190 million in public money and land for a stadium for D.C. United, the city's Major League Soccer team. The team plays at the 47-year-old RFK Stadium.

"The general idea was that he'd like to go forward but did not want to have another divisive battle reminiscent of the baseball stadium," said Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), one of the council's chief boosters of city stadiums. Fenty's position was, Evans said, "if there is real consensus on the council to do it, we'll do it. But if it's another food fight like baseball, we will not do it."

Raising the stakes for Fenty even higher is the possibility that United could leave the city for Prince George's County, where officials have begun courting team owner Victor B. MacFarlane. Although United does not have as deep a fan base in the city as do other Washington teams, Fenty is said to be mindful that former mayor Sharon Pratt's reign was largely defined by her failure to find a new D.C. home for the Redskins, who went to Landover.

Sources in Fenty's administration said the mayor was prepared to announce a stadium deal during a news conference Thursday in Ward 8, in which he detailed the redevelopment of the 110-acre Poplar Point, near the Anacostia River. Instead, having gotten a lukewarm response from the council about a stadium, Fenty did not mention soccer in his opening remarks and was evasive when asked about the stadium by reporters.

"Nothing final is in place," he said. "We are reviewing various proposals. If it makes sense for the District of Columbia, we'll pursue it."

To the social activists who opposed the baseball stadium and remember Fenty as an ally, his flirtation with soccer has them shaking their heads. At the news conference, the mayor said he balked at the baseball deal only because the city was required to foot the entire $611 million price tag. Fenty said that if Major League Baseball had agreed to share the burden, he might have felt different.

But Ed Lazere, executive director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, a liberal think tank that studies city budget issues, said Fenty has a short memory. Lazere said that the mayor fundamentally objected to the idea of taxpayers subsidizing wealthy baseball owners and argued that stadiums do not produce economic benefits worthy of their costs.

"The arguments that Adrian Fenty made as a council member still apply," Lazere said.

What also still applies are the campaign promises Fenty made to residents who say their neighborhoods east of the Anacostia were left behind during the downtown revitalization during Williams's tenure.

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