A Stadium Plan That Won't Pay Off

By Marc Fisher
Thursday, May 29, 2008

A soccer stadium in Anacostia would be a splendid addition to Washington's resurgence as a sports town. But the city has no business paying for such a facility or grabbing riverfront parkland to build it.

Not all sports facilities are born alike. Over the past decade, as it has gone from zero major league sports teams to five, the District has learned that entertainment venues can be powerful engines of economic development.

It's hard to walk around Washington's East End without seeing how Abe Pollin's sports arena inspired block after block of development, creating a bustling neighborhood of theaters, museums, restaurants and shops. At the city's southern edge, the Nationals' new baseball stadium, not two months into operations, is raking in far more tax dollars than anticipated.

Now, as The Washington Post's David Nakamura reported yesterday, a coalition of D.C. Council members wants to pump some of that baseball revenue into a soccer stadium at Poplar Point, a sadly neglected riverfront park in Southeast.

If the owners of D.C. United want to pay for such a facility, as they initially said they would, that's a deal any city should embrace -- and there's plenty of privately owned land in Anacostia just right for a stadium. But if Mayor Adrian Fenty and the council now propose to pay $150 million toward a 27,000-seat stadium -- exactly what Fenty said earlier this year would be an inappropriate use of tight resources -- then the District is failing to understand a very simple set of numbers.

Here they are: 220, 100, 35, 8.

The downtown arena Pollin built with his own $220 million (the District kicked in for infrastructure around the site) hosts roughly 220 events a year, including Wizards and Mystics basketball, Capitals hockey, the circus, concerts and conferences. (Billboard magazine ranked Pollin's arena ninth on the planet in profits.)

The baseball stadium, paid for by D.C. government bonds based on tax receipts from fans and businesses, will host 81 Nats games, plus a smattering of concerts and other sports and special events such as a papal visit, for a total of about 100 dates.

A Major League Soccer stadium, using other teams' facilities as a guide, might be used 35 times a year. That's better than the eight or so times an NFL stadium sees action each year, but it is nowhere near the intensity of use that can gin up crowds for an entertainment district.

And if a city doesn't get ancillary development out of investing in a sports facility, then it cannot justify pumping public dollars into a profit-making business. If Prince George's County has seen any economic benefit from playing host to the Redskins, please let the residents of Landover know, because all they've gotten is a world-class traffic nightmare.

Major League Soccer is in the midst of a nationwide campaign to win public money for its teams' stadiums. In Salt Lake City, after years of bitter political battles, a suburban stadium is now rising, with the team paying 60 percent of the cost and state and local governments footing the rest of the bill. In New Jersey, local governments sold $40 million in bonds to buy land for the New York Red Bulls' $220 million, 25,000-seat stadium; team owners pay the rest. In Chester, outside Philadelphia, officials planning a $115 million, 18,500-seat facility to lure a soccer franchise expect state and local funding to cover most of the cost. In Ohio, after voters turned down public financing, the Columbus Crew franchise paid for a no-frills stadium.

Victor MacFarlane, the investor who bought D.C. United last year, initially said he'd pay for a stadium himself, but that was contingent on his winning the right to build retail and housing around the stadium. He lost that competition, so now he wants the city to pay for the bulk of the stadium.

Whoever pays, a decision to build at Poplar Point would represent another flip-flop on the part of the city. Less than six months ago, Fenty told me -- as he had assured environmentalists who were among his most avid supporters -- that Poplar Point was probably not a good place for a sports facility, that although it was important to keep United in the District, there were good alternative sites for a stadium.

Poplar Point is a national park, a place of remarkable beauty that could become a gateway to the river, a gathering spot for recreation and exploration of nature. In this divided city, the notion that an irreplaceable riverfront park is the right place for a stadium development would never pass the laugh test over in the affluent, white part of town. Grab a chunk of Rock Creek Park for a stadium and massive parking lots? The ultimate nonstarter. But in poor, black Anacostia, all politicians and developers have to do is keep reciting a mantra of "jobs, jobs, jobs," and maybe they can get away with a land grab of the most cynical kind.

Remember those numbers, though. A stadium that gets used maybe 30 times a year isn't going to spark development, and it certainly won't create many decent jobs.

Join me at noon today for "Potomac Confidential" athttp://www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company