By Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 18, 2009
A survey being circulated to D.C. United fans has residents of Montgomery and Loudoun counties speculating about their chances to host the team as the soccer franchise pushes forward in its years-long search for a new stadium.
The survey, sent to fans via e-mail last week and made available at http://www.dcunited.com, asks the team's supporters to rank their preferred location. The options are lower Montgomery, Loudoun and the District.
"We're engaging fans for some thoughts on a few different municipalities," said Doug Hicks, a D.C. United spokesman. "We're working toward a continued conversation with a few of those municipalities in the coming weeks."
He emphasized that the discussions are preliminary and that no decisions have been made.
Senior officials in Montgomery and Loudoun were similarly tight-lipped, saying they would not comment on ongoing business discussions. But people close to the negotiations, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the team and majority owner Will Chang, a San Mateo, Calif., businessman, are considering options in Maryland and Virginia.
Any new stadium in the Washington area, with a possible need for hundreds of millions of dollars in public financing, is expected to face intense scrutiny. County governments are grappling with shrinking budgets and layoffs, and voters might be unwilling to support an effort to bankroll a new stadium.
For years, D.C. United officials have tried unsuccessfully to find a new home for its franchise. The team has played in the District's 48-year-old RFK Stadium since the team was founded in 1996. In February, plans for a stadium in the developing Poplar Point area along the Anacostia River fell through and, in April, Prince George's County officials scuttled a plan to build a 24,000-seat stadium as part of a larger, mixed-use development. Last month, after more than two years of fruitless negotiating, managing partner Victor B. MacFarlane, a San Francisco real estate developer, sold his stake in the team to Chang.
Among the stumbling blocks were matters of financing. At Poplar Point, MacFarlane proposed building a stadium and an attached hotel and conference center, with the help of about $150 million to $225 million in public funds. That deal fell apart after D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), still angered by the expense of the Washington Nationals baseball stadium in Southeast Washington, refused to step in and help.
The fan survey, which is expected to remain online through the end of the week, has reignited discussion about the team's options. The lower Montgomery option includes Rockville, Wheaton and Silver Spring. Montgomery is home to the Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds, where the Washington Freedom, a female professional soccer team, plays.
"Soccer is huge in Montgomery County, and, to be honest, there's not a lot of large venues here," said Trish Heffelfinger, executive director of the Maryland Soccer Foundation, which oversees the SoccerPlex.
Montgomery County Council member Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty), a longtime proponent of attracting soccer and entertainment venues, said public financing would be a "potential sticking point." But he said D.C. United's strong fan base would be a major selling point, an aspect that was lacking in a plan two years ago to build an indoor arena in the county. That plan, for a multipurpose arena with as many as 7,000 seats, gained the approval of the state's Stadium Authority but did not go further.
"With this, you have a team that has a track record of attracting fans, that has a schedule, that has a clarity of purpose," Knapp said.
In Loudoun, officials have held out little hope for landing the stadium. The Northern Virginia suburb is about 40 miles from the District and has no mass transit. But the survey and Metro's planned extension into the county along the Dulles corridor, scheduled to be completed by the end of 2016, appear to have revived the county's chances.
"There's no doubt that Loudoun County would be a fantastic place for a soccer club. It's ground zero here for soccer on the youth level," said David D'Onofrio, a Leesburg communications consultant and soccer fan who has pushed for a D.C. United move to Loudoun. "If you take a look at where Major League Soccer is finding success, it's in suburban areas as opposed to urban areas."
Finding a home for Major League Soccer in Loudoun might be tough, however. Tony Howard, executive director of the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce, said that he has heard little more than "rumbling" about a move to Loudoun and that public financing for such a stadium might be a deal breaker.
"It might be better to say that public financing, in this climate, might be a non-starter," Howard said. "It might stop the conversation from even beginning."
Loudoun's long-shot status has done little to dampen the hopes of the county's soccer faithful.
"This is an up-and-coming sport in Northern Virginia, and this would be an incredible affirmation that this is a place that has a great fan base that can support a stadium," said Miles Davis, a board member of Loudoun Soccer, a 7,000-person youth league.
Loudoun has flirted with major league sports franchises before, having been one of the sites proposed for the Nationals stadium. The Virginia baseball bid failed after state legislators sparred over the proposed use of state-supported bonds to build the ballpark near Dulles International Airport.