D.C. Council Crafting Plan to Pay $150 Million for Soccer Stadium

By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 28, 2008

A coalition of D.C. Council members is drafting legislation that would authorize Mayor Adrian M. Fenty to spend $150 million in public money to subsidize construction of a soccer stadium for D.C. United in Southeast Washington, city government sources said.

Under the plan being developed by Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), the 27,000-seat stadium would be included in a larger, mixed-use development at Poplar Point, a 110-acre swath of parkland along the Anacostia River. The site is across the river from the Washington Nationals' baseball stadium.

The city would finance construction bonds with excess tax revenue being collected by the District to pay for the baseball stadium. D.C. United would be responsible for paying for any costs above $150 million, according to the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the plan is still being finalized.

The legislation could be introduced at the council's next legislative meeting Tuesday, if all goes smoothly, the sources said. Gray, Evans and Barry are working to win majority support on the 13-member council, but the project could prove contentious. Debate over the baseball stadium's $611 million financing package dragged on nearly two years, dividing the council and residents.

In February, Fenty (D) floated essentially the same plan as the one being developed by council members, but he backed off after the proposal was made public. The mayor, who as a council member voted against the baseball package, has been reluctant to actively support the soccer project and is content to let the council take the lead, the city government sources said. Through a spokeswoman, Fenty declined to comment yesterday.

But at a meeting last night of the Anacostia Coordinating Council, a neighborhood group in Ward 8 that supports the stadium, business leader James Bunn asked Fenty to commit to the stadium project.

"We are moving forward and hope to have a deal that can be announced soon," Fenty replied.

The three council members have said they must act soon to keep the soccer team in the District. Team owner Victor B. MacFarlane has been talking with Prince George's County officials about moving the franchise to Greenbelt or New Carrollton if the District is unwilling to help build the stadium.

Council member Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large), chairman of the Economic Development Committee, met with Gray, Evans and Barry two weeks ago to discuss the financing plan. Brown, who is running for reelection, has been generally supportive of a stadium but has not committed to voting for it.

"There have been so many different scenarios, and that's one of the last ones that I've heard," Brown said of the $150 million plan. "I need to see exactly what that means. . . . I haven't been presented anything, nothing in writing. How are we going to do it?"

Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) said she had not heard about the latest plan. When the stadium issue was broached a few months ago by Fenty, Cheh said, she voiced opposition to using public money.

"I just don't think we should be an ATM for sporting authorities, unless they can make a compelling case to me," Cheh said.

Calls to Evans and Gray were not returned yesterday, and Barry declined to comment.

United plays at 47-year-old RFK Stadium, where MacFarlane has said the team loses $10 million a year because it does not control ad revenue at the stadium under its agreement with the city. Plans for a new facility have been stalled since last summer, when the Fenty administration abruptly broke off informal discussions with MacFarlane.

The administration said MacFarlane's proposal, which included him taking control of the entire Poplar Point development, was not good for the city. Fenty aides ultimately awarded the development rights for Poplar Point to Bethesda-based Clark Realty Capital, which included a soccer stadium as an option in its proposal.

MacFarlane, meanwhile, opened negotiations with officials in Prince George's but has continued to talk with D.C. officials about Poplar Point. A request to MacFarlane's spokeswoman for comment did not yield a response yesterday.

D.C. United officials have been eager to complete a deal before the council goes on summer recess in mid-July, but the timetable is tight. After being introduced, the stadium legislation would require a public hearing, a committee markup and two council votes. Furthermore, the proposed financing plan represents a potential sticking point.

City financial officials project that the District will collect about $20 million more each year from taxes on businesses and stadium sales of tickets, food and merchandise than required to pay for Nationals Park. That additional money could be used to fund a soccer stadium, D.C. Chief Financial Natwar M. Gandhi has said. Business leaders, who have already been in contention with the Fenty administration over a reduction in the size of a commercial property tax cut, have said any excess revenue could go toward retiring the 30-year baseball stadium bonds early and relieving businesses of their tax burden more quickly.

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