Soccer Stadium 'Lacked a Champion'

The Washington Post's David Nakamura talks about the decision to finance a 24,000-seat soccer facility in Prince George's County for D.C. United, after talks in Washington faltered. Video by News Channel 8
By David Nakamura and Ovetta Wiggins
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, February 19, 2009

D.C. United owner Victor B. MacFarlane arrived in Washington two years ago with a grand plan to woo Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, build a stadium to help remake the city's poorest ward and open development opportunities for his well-regarded financing firm.

Turns out, the audience MacFarlane ultimately impressed was not Fenty (D) or other District leaders, but Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D), who announced this week that his jurisdiction would help United finance a 24,000-seat soccer facility near a Metro station.

For all three men, the move is a gamble.

MacFarlane hopes he can begin to turn his fortunes around after a bleak year in which a nearly $1 billion land deal he orchestrated in California went bankrupt and he placed his 20,000-square-foot penthouse atop the St. Regis hotel in San Francisco on the market.

Johnson hopes the successful courtship of a second professional sports franchise -- the Washington Redskins play at FedEx Field in Landover -- will increase economic development and raise the county's profile on regional and national maps.

And Fenty hopes he is correct in calculating that it is less risky to rebuff United than to commit public money during a recession to build a stadium that would cost $180 million to $195 million.

"We bear no ill will toward Washington," MacFarlane said this week. "My day job, I am still a major investor in Washington to the tune of probably a billion dollars, so I don't want Washington, D.C., to disappear. We tried a business deal that didn't work. We are happy that it is working [in Prince George's], and we are very excited."

Although Fenty said in a statement that the city will "greatly miss being home to the team," he and his economic development aides are shedding few tears. The stadium proposal has always been politically dicey for Fenty, who as a council member had consistently opposed public funding for the Nationals' new baseball park.

MacFarlane's ownership group bought control of United, which plays at RFK Stadium, for $33 million in late 2006. A financier of land development, MacFarlane bought the franchise with hopes of leveraging himself into the District's massive $2.5 billion revitalization project at Poplar Point, a 110-acre swath of parkland along the Anacostia River in Southeast Washington.

Making the rounds of the D.C. government building, MacFarlane had talked of a new soccer facility as the catalyst for Poplar Point, spurring the creation of much-needed services to help residents in Ward 8. In exchange, he wanted control of much of the development -- or up to $225 million in public subsidies.

Fenty's aides said they were never convinced that a soccer stadium would generate more tax revenue than, say, a movie theater or bowling alley. Behind the scenes, Fenty told D.C. Council members he would support a stadium only if they took the lead. But there was no majority support on the 13-member council, and the recession has made public financing even less appealing.

The stadium "lacked a champion," said council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2). "That was the biggest factor in this deal going under."

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