It’s just a plot of land now, mostly overgrown brush and trees. Nothing resembling a baseball diamond. And with no signage and no visitors, it’s difficult at a glance to understand the community dispute that has sprouted amid the seven acres of weeds and tall grass in Woodbridge.
This could be the future home of the Potomac Nationals, a Class A affiliate of the Washington Nationals whose past rosters briefly included future stars such as Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg. And if it isn’t — if Prince William County isn’t ready to help fund construction of a new 6,000-seat stadium — the team’s owner says he will have no choice: He will have to sell the team, and it will relocate elsewhere.
“I have no interest in owning a ballclub in North Carolina or something,” Art Silber said in a recent interview.
Silber is facing a deadline from Minor League Baseball, which has told him the Potomac Nationals’ current stadium, 33-year-old Pfitzner Stadium, is not up to standards and the team must find a new home by 2019. Silber has tried for several years to fund a new stadium for his team, and in March, he and Washington-based developer JBG Companies signed a nonbinding letter of intent with the county to work together on a $35 million stadium, plus an adjacent parking garage on a piece of property JBG owns called Stonebridge at Potomac Town Center, just off Interstate 95.
But since then, opposition has grown, and the county has found itself locked in the same stadium debate that has surfaced in communities across the country, divided over whether local taxpayers should help build professional sports stadiums.
In Prince William, the board of supervisors is considering a proposal in which it would use bond money to build the stadium. The team would then reimburse the county the entire cost over the course of a 30-year lease.
“We’ve all read about certain professional sports teams threatening to leave if a local government doesn’t buy them a new stadium. The exact opposite is happening here,” said Tom Sebastian, a senior vice president with JBG. “The Potomac Nationals have agreed to pay 100 percent of the cost to construct a new stadium so that they can stay in Prince William County.”
But dissenters are concerned because the county is the one responsible for the upfront costs and there are few guarantees if the team isn’t able to fulfill its obligations. The issue has attracted the attention of some special-interest groups, including Americans for Prosperity, the conservative advocacy group backed by David and Charles Koch, which has waged an informational campaign and contends “corporate welfare for a private baseball team is a bad play for taxpayers.”
“It’s tempting to think that this stadium would be an economic boon to our community, but history shows these handouts are an irresponsible use of taxpayer dollars, plain and simple,” said Tyler Muench, the organization’s field director in Northern Virginia.
Some members of the board of supervisors agree and don’t want to lock the county into a long-term bill without first putting the matter before voters. On Tuesday, they will consider a referendum that would allow county residents to decide in November whether they approve of the bonds.
For Silber, that’s too late. To open the new ballpark in time, the team needs to break ground soon. Waiting for a November vote, he says, would mean the end of minor league baseball in Woodbridge.
While the Potomac Nationals are affiliated with the Washington Nationals, the team is independently owned. The parent club certainly enjoys having a minor league team located just 30 miles down the road, but it has no say in the stadium financing showdown.
Silber was a successful banker and bought the Class A team for less than a million dollars in 1990. Since that time, he says, more than 6 million fans have walked through the gates. His daughter, Lani, is team president and runs the day-to-day operations.
“Selling it has never been an option,” said Silber, 76. “Then we wouldn’t own it anymore.”
The Potomac Nationals’ current stadium is aging, with metal bleachers, bad sight lines and no fan amenities. “It’s literally rusting away,” Silber said. The proposed replacement would feature a splash zone for kids, a grassy area for families and a crab shack in left field. It would be located within walking distance of a shopping center owned by JBG. JBG sees the area turning into a community destination — an entertainment complex — and Silber thinks it will keep baseball in the area for years to come.
Others, though, fixate on the risks and fear the county could be setting itself up for trouble.
“If the team doesn’t make their revenue targets — if the team is not able to pay its annual projection lease amount — there’s no guarantees anywhere that they have to make up the difference,” said Pete Candland, one of Prince William’s eight county supervisors. “The taxpayers are the ones on the hook.”
The county funded an independent economic analysis that suggests a new stadium would generate 288 jobs, $175 million in economic impact and $4.9 million in tax revenue over a 30-year lease. While the report, compiled by Brailsford & Dunlavey, showed some promising revenue projections for a new stadium, it also said “it will be challenging for the team to generate the projected revenues in a ballpark built to their proposed budget.”
That’s what worried Candland and groups like Americans for Prosperity. They fear the team — particularly after an inevitable honeymoon period — won’t have the income to cover debt service costs and land lease payments, about $2.7 million per year. Or worse: It will break the lease and leave town at some point, sticking the county with the remaining bill.
“If the Potomac Nationals or the Silber family wants to sign a guarantee and say they’ll backstop it and they won’t push it onto the taxpayers, then that completely changes things,” Candland said. “But they’re not willing to do that.”
The economic analysis noted that the average minor league ballpark draws 81 percent of its funding from the public sector. Because the team intends to repay the county’s debt through its lease, Silber says the Potomac Nationals’ stadium proposal is essentially privately funded.
“It’s actually more generous than deals many communities enter into,” he said. “We have an opportunity to provide the community something that no other minor league team has ever done, and that is to pay for the ballpark completely ourselves.”
The proposal is complex and also includes a $34 million commuter parking garage that would need to be covered by state money and $7 million from the county dedicated to site work. Because the county would own the stadium, it could use the facility for other events on days the team isn’t in town. Frank Principi, the county supervisor for Woodbridge, said “the benefit side is much greater than the risk side.”
“There are valid concerns about the risk that taxpayers would be absorbing through the financing deal,” he said. “We’re trying to take this on as a business opportunity, mitigate the risks that all parties have and make it a win-win situation for everybody.”
Principi says he has heard from far more supporters than stadium skeptics but says the dissenters have become louder in recent weeks. While the team runs the informational site KeepPNatsLocal.com, the Koch-funded group launched a website urging voters to voice their opposition to the stadium plan.
The team is hopeful the county will enter into a final stadium agreement next month, that bonds soon can be issued and the stadium will be on schedule to open in 2020 — with a waiver from Minor League Baseball to remain in Pfitzner Stadium one extra season. But the Potomac Nationals need to get through Tuesday’s meeting first and say they can’t afford to wait for a public vote in November.
For now, Candland says all he wants is for the voters to have a say.
“If it came to me, I’d say this is a bad deal and I’d vote against it,” he said. “But I understand there’s varying points of view out there, so let’s send it to citizens of the county. If they vote they’re willing to accept the risk, I’ll accept that. If the Nationals are confident that everyone loves the team and wants it to stay, then they should be confident that people will vote to accept that risk in November.”