The Prince George's County soccer stadium - a dubious proposal

Friday, February 20, 2009

IF IT SOUNDS too good to be true, it's probably coming out of the mouth of a Maryland politician. That's what Prince George's County residents should keep in mind as local lawmakers rev up the sales pitch aimed at bringing the D.C. United soccer franchise to the county. Officials boast that a new stadium would generate hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in revenue without costing taxpayers a cent. As Marylanders have learned the hard way (See: slot machines), promises of pain-free revenue should be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism. A new stadium for one of the Washington region's most competitive sports franchises isn't a nonstarter, but, in their zeal to see it built, county officials shouldn't hype the benefits.

Officials, including Maryland Del. Melony G. Griffith (D-Prince George's), one of the project's ardent backers, say the stadium would create more than 1,000 jobs, bring in more than $5 million in annual tax revenue and generate as much as $80 million in economic activity. That sounds promising until you consider the source: The figures come from a study commissioned last year by the Maryland Stadium Authority, a state agency with a vested interest in seeing the stadium built. As was concluded in a 2004 Cato Institute paper by professors Dennis Coates of the University of Maryland Baltimore County and Brad R. Humphreys of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, such studies "invariably reflect the desires of the people who commission them." When officials say that the stadium won't cost taxpayers, they really mean that the residents won't have to pay anything unless revenue falls short of projections. That's a very sizable "unless," especially in this economy. To finance the facility, the Maryland Stadium Authority would have to sell millions of dollars in bonds in a cratering market, almost guaranteeing unfavorable payment terms, which will be difficult to meet without burdening taxpayers.

D.C. United is one of the most exciting franchises in Major League Soccer, but it has struggled to turn a profit in rundown RFK Stadium. Immigrant-rich Prince George's County could be an ideal home for a sport with such international popularity, and there is also something to be said for the civic pride that comes with a sports franchise.

But residents deserve an honest accounting of the pros and cons that would accompany the stadium. County politicians should put down their pompoms and deliver the facts.

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