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Officials Hesitate on Soccer Stadium

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By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 1, 2008

When it comes to building a soccer stadium for D.C. United in Southeast Washington, there has been a debilitating political paradox at the District government building: Although city leaders say they support the project, no one wants to take the lead.

D.C. officials said the difference between the soccer negotiations and the long fight over the Washington Nationals stadium is that at least the ballpark had a clear champion -- then-Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D). The soccer stadium proposal has been handed around the John A. Wilson Building like a baton at a relay race with no finish line.

Behind the scenes, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) and several other key council members have been willing to move forward with a public financing package of at least $150 million. But, mindful of the political fallout from the baseball stadium, each has been reluctant to push hard publicly for soccer.

Now that contradiction appears to have torpedoed another attempt to get the stadium project, on hold for more than a year, moving again.

Last week, Gray and council members Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) were quietly drafting a bill to authorize the funding package. But after the plan was disclosed by the media, Gray backed away, council sources said. Without his support, the legislation, once scheduled to be introduced at Tuesday's legislative meeting, will be delayed at least a month, the sources predicted.

In an interview Friday, Gray said he supports building the stadium at Poplar Point along the Anacostia River as a way to stimulate development in the city's eastern half, where he lives. The stadium would be part of a larger, mixed-use development with housing, shops and offices. But Gray said the draft legislation on the stadium portion has not been properly vetted.

"I have no fear of taking the lead. I like having soccer in the city. It can be valuable for the city," he said. "The question is, what am I'm taking the lead on? I want to make sure, to the best of my ability, that we get the best deal we can."

Evans, the council's most ardent stadium supporter, would not comment last week. Only Barry spoke enthusiastically in public, calling the stadium an "economic generator" for jobs and revenue.

As the three council members took some heat -- e-mails from residents flooded their in-boxes, most of them opposed to the project -- Fenty tried to keep the controversy at a distance, even though his office has been closely involved all along.

For months, Deputy Mayor Neil O. Albert has been talking with United officials, negotiating the framework for a financial package that the administration is willing to support. Albert would not comment.

In a private meeting in February, Fenty told council members that the administration would be willing to contribute between $150 million and $190 million for the 27,000-seat stadium and adjoining hotel. More recently, city government sources said, the administration's figure has been fixed at about $165 million.

But Fenty, who as a council member voted against the baseball stadium, has consistently shied away from the soccer project in public, saying repeatedly that it is up to the council to take the lead.

With the mayor unwilling to push, it has fallen to Gray, Evans and Barry to enlist majority support among the 13-member council.

Complicating that effort, however, are council elections in the fall. Several members, including Evans, Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7) and Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large), are running to maintain their seats; some are said to be fearful of a political backlash if they support the stadium. Although Alexander favors the project, Brown, who has become the focus of Gray, Evans and Barry, is hesitant.

Brown is chairman of the Committee on Economic Development, one of two committees that would have jurisdiction over the legislation. The other, the Committee on Finance and Revenue, is chaired by Evans.

In the fall, Brown held a public hearing in Ward 8, and most of the 80 residents who attended spoke in favor of the project. Afterward, Brown said he would support a stadium, but in private meetings with his colleagues, he has refused to commit to voting for it. Brown denied that his position is tied to election politics. Rather, he said, he has not seen a detailed financing proposal.

"I support a stadium, but I need to see what the details are of the legislation and financing," Brown said. "I haven't been presented anything."

The upshot was not encouraging to four D.C. United representatives who wandered forlornly through the halls of the city building Wednesday. They visited Gray, then Evans, then Barry and, finally, Albert.

But as the representatives departed, the stadium deal was no further along than it was when they arrived.

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