Friday, March 7, 2008

3/7/08: The Washington Post - A Sporting Issue: D.C.'s interests should dictate a decision on a soccer stadium.

AS CONSTRUCTION of the Washington Nationals' new baseball stadium nears completion, discussion is warming up on whether to use city money to help D.C. United build a soccer stadium in Southeast. No doubt the coincidence in timing will be part of any upcoming debate. Supporters believe soccer fans deserve the same consideration that baseball fans are shown; opponents think the expense of the Nationals stadium is reason to rule out public investment in another stadium. In making a decision, District leaders should focus only on the soccer stadium plan and whether it makes sense for the city.

Talk of subsidizing a soccer stadium at Poplar Point in Ward 8 has been on-again, off-again. D.C. United believed it had an understanding with the administration of then-Mayor Anthony A. Williams, but Mayor Adrian M. Fenty cut off talks as he wisely sought other ideas on developing the prime waterfront property. The stadium is back in the picture as an optional part of a proposed $2.5 billion, mixed-use development. Mr. Fenty, an ardent foe of the $611 million ballpark for the Nationals, has said he wouldn't support any deal in which the city picks up the full tab but is open to a public-private partnership. Mr. Fenty has made clear he won't be out in front in pushing the plan without support from the D.C. Council. Indeed, much of the impetus to make a deal with D.C. United comes from the council, including members from east of the Anacostia River, such as influential council Chairman Vincent C. Gray.

Mr. Fenty has floated the idea of using excess tax money being raised for the Nationals' ballpark to help finance construction. An obvious question is whether the District can afford to take on the additional debt. And is that even fair to District businesses, which were assessed a special tax with the understanding that the money would go to pay off the baseball debt? The costs will have to be carefully analyzed, particularly since there is economic uncertainty. What will be harder to judge are the intangibles. Such as civic pride in retaining a popular and successful sports team. Or the spinoffs that soccer could provide to the boys and girls of the city. And what could perhaps be the most appealing argument for the stadium -- its potential to spark a revitalization of long-neglected communities east of the river. If soccer can help transform Ward 8 and Ward 7 the way basketball helped to change downtown, city dollars would be well spent.

Much of the discussion about these issues has, regrettably, been behind closed doors, as the mayor and council want to avoid the kind of debilitating battle that occurred over baseball. That desire must not rob the public of full and open discussion of the issues. Or of an answer to the question of what best serves the District of Columbia.

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