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State Senate leader gives up on bill to bring Commanders to Virginia

Virginia State Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) cited mounting controversies surrounding the team. (Steve Helber/Associated Press)

RICHMOND — The state legislator who has led the charge to lure the Washington Commanders to Virginia gave up the fight Thursday, saying the latest controversy surrounding the team has proved too much to overcome, a substantial setback for the team in its search for a new location for its stadium.

The news came as a group of D.C. legislators declared on Thursday they would not support bringing the team to the city, further muddying prospects for the team’s ultimate location.

State Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) said comments that Commanders defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio made this week about the Jan. 6 insurrection were the last straw for the stadium bill. Del Rio had called the storming of the U.S. Capitol building a “dust-up” compared to the racial justice protests that followed the death of George Floyd in 2020.

“This obviously was not very helpful, to put it mildly, but there’s so many other things out there,” Saslaw said, referring to investigations into allegations of sexual harassment and financial mismanagement by the team and its owner Daniel Snyder. “There were just so many things out there that a lot of people are saying, ‘Saslaw, this thing needs to wait.’”

On Thursday, the Commanders issued a statement acknowledging a Virginia deal would not go forward, and that it would hold out hope for the effort to be revived down the road. “We greatly appreciate the time and effort of bipartisan leaders throughout the Virginia General Assembly in crafting legislation to establish a Football Stadium Authority,” the statement said.

“Given the complexity of this endeavor, coupled with the remarkable economic development opportunity that we believe our new venue project represents, we support the decision of stakeholders in the House of Delegates and the State Senate to more deeply examine this issue. We look forward to continued engagement and open dialogue with stakeholders across the Commonwealth to share our vision and hear directly from communities on their economic development objectives and how we can be a trusted, reliable partner to realize those outcomes,” it said.

Despite the lack of legislation, the team and Loudoun County will continue to pursue a purchase option agreement at Waterside, a planned development of shops and offices that is now Loudoun Quarries, according to two people with knowledge of the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing business negotiations. The Commanders have a similar agreement in Woodbridge, Va.

“The legislation is just one piece of this puzzle,” Buddy Rizer, the executive director for economic development in Loudoun County, said in a statement. “We’re committed to continuing our work with the team on the local pieces of this project to see if there is an opportunity to bring this vision to reality in Loudoun County.”

Snyder has sought to build not just a new stadium but a massive commercial and residential complex that supporters call a “mini city,” including a convention center, concert venue, restaurants, hotels and housing. The team, which is contractually obligated to play at FedEx Field in Landover, Md., until 2027, has been shopping for a new home for years in the District, Maryland and Virginia.

The franchise had long struggled to drum up competition between the jurisdictions, but now with the commonwealth off the table and a majority of the D.C. Council members coalescing Thursday to oppose the team returning to the site of RFK Stadium, it is unclear how the Commanders could revive that competition in the near term.

Snyder could either forge ahead this year in the District or Maryland, which has already pledged $400 million for infrastructure around a new stadium, or he can wait for next year in the hopes of getting all three jurisdictions to participate. But each day without a new stadium deal dims the Commanders hopes of moving out of FedEx Field by the time its contractual obligation to play there expires.

Hoping to land the project in Virginia, Saslaw and a powerful Republican, House Appropriations Chairman Barry D. Knight (Virginia Beach), introduced bills early this year to create a stadium authority to oversee construction and financing of the project. As originally proposed, the bills would have allowed the team to collect a share of state tax revenue generated by the stadium and the more expansive commercial development to finance construction of the stadium, originally of as much as $1 billion.

Negotiators worked since then to further limit the state contribution, capping it at less than $300 million and allowing the team a share of revenue generated only from the stadium, not the broader “mini city.” But at the same time, controversies grew around the team and Snyder, who has been accused of sexual misconduct and financial improprieties, allegations he denies.

At least two state legislators, Sen. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax), whose district includes the area in Prince William that had emerged as a potential location, and Sen. Jeremy McPike (D-Prince William), announced on Twitter on Wednesday that the remarks by Del Rio were, for them, the last straw.

Saslaw said he still holds out hope that the project could be revived once various issues surrounding the team are resolved, noting that negotiators from the Virginia House and Senate had worked in recent months to make the stadium legislation more financially advantageous for the state. In the most recent form of the legislation, Saslaw said no taxpayer money would go toward the stadium “unless you were a player or coach on the team or bought something from a concession stand at one of their home games.”

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R), who has expressed support for the project, declined to comment Thursday through a spokeswoman.

Meanwhile, the possibility of the Commanders playing in the District appeared to dim further Thursday. Seven members of the D.C. Council, led by Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), stated firmly in a letter to Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) that a majority of the 13-member legislative body supports a proposed bill in Congress that would allow the city to purchase and develop the land around RFK Stadium, but they said a stadium for the Commanders at the site is a nonstarter.

“We all hope that the Washington Commanders can address its ownership’s many off-the-field failures, in particular its failure to provide a safe working environment for women,” the letter said. “However, we believe that this riverfront property, one of the last large undeveloped parcels of land in the District, must be utilized in the best interest of D.C. residents.” In a tweet, Allen added, “we will not support an NFL stadium as part of the future of the RFK campus. The debate is done.”

In addition to Allen, the letter was signed by D.C. Council members Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large), Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), Christina Henderson (I-At Large), Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1), Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) and Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4). The letter comes amid disagreement between the administration of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) on a plan to acquire the site and how to best use the 190 acres of land there.

Norton said in an interview Thursday she found the letter “ill-directed” and that it “should have been addressed to the mayor, not to me.” She made clear the only thing preventing her from introducing the legislation is that she is still waiting on Bowser and Mendelson to reach an agreement about what they want the legislation to say about the terms and conditions of the land transfer to the District. The council will have the final say on how to use the land, Norton noted, but she has stayed out of that debate.

Still, she said that if Bowser and Mendelson were to agree that they want language in the bill prohibiting the land from being used for a Commanders stadium, she would be glad to include that. In fact, she said, that would make it easier for her to move the bill through Congress, given many Democrats have misgivings about the Commanders due to the ongoing investigations.

Mendelson said he did not sign the letter because he has to represent the entire council in talks with the mayor and Norton. Following what he called a long-awaited briefing Thursday with John Falcicchio, deputy mayor for planning and economic development, Mendelson said he saw “potential issues” in the city purchasing the RFK Stadium land, particularly because it remains unclear how much a potential acquisition of the land might cost the District.

A spokeswoman for Bowser did not respond to requests for comment, but at a news conference Thursday, Bowser shot back at the assertion by Allen that the debate over a potential Commanders stadium at the RFK campus is over, adding, “How arrogant can you be to suggest that a debate is over when I’m still talking?”

Bowser has said she supports bringing the Commanders back to the District but has advocated for acquiring the land regardless to help the city fulfill its goals around affordable housing and recreation. Mendelson has said he is open to a deal that would prepare the land for the Commanders, but would not support the team returning to the District until the NFL releases the findings of its sexual harassment investigation into the team and owner.

The developments leave the Maryland option with the most consolidated political support. At a news conference Thursday, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said he was not surprised by the news that the Virginia legislation was dead and said state leaders believed the Commanders would stay in Maryland. “After that action in Virginia, there’s no other potential place for them to go but to stay in Maryland, and we assume that they we will,” he said. “But we haven’t had any conversations since Virginia rejected the idea.”

Maryland leaders have emphasized they are investing in the area around FedEx Field whether the team stays or goes. “You got to hear me on this. These projects do not depend on the Washington Commanders,” Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks (D) said to laughs and applause Tuesday during an annual economic development address where she outlined other projects near the stadium site. “Let me be clear, we believe that they belong here,” she said. “But we’re working on planning a new cultural center and library, a sports field house, a market hall and civic plaza.”

Maryland lawmakers already authorized $400 million in bonds for the Metro’s Blue Line corridor that includes the current stadium site. The money would go to demolishing the existing stadium and building amenities around it, not a stadium. Snyder already owns more than 200 acres of land inside the corridor, a stretch of five miles along the Blue Line, from the District boundary at Capitol Heights to Largo Town Center, east of FedEx Field.

County leaders have made funneling cash to the corridor a top economic development goal. Their pitch to the team last year proposed the new stadium could anchor a new sports-entertainment development that the public could help finance. While that $400 million deal approved by the state this spring does not include any cash to build the stadium, it also might not be the end of incentives offered to the team.

Alsobrooks and county government have not made a public incentive offer, though their confidential pitch to the team said such incentives were on the table. Del. Jazz Lewis (D-Prince George’s) has said he hoped the $400 million would be “the beginning of the conversation” about what Maryland could offer if the team commits to staying.

Brice-Saddler, Cox, Flynn and Fortier reported from Washington.