Wednesday, March 5, 2008

3/5/08: The Washington Post - Soccer Stadium Update: Calling United's Bluff

Raw Fisher

Mayor Adrian Fenty very much wants to keep the D.C. United soccer franchise in the District, but he does not consider a soccer stadium nearly as powerful an engine of economic development as the Washington Nationals' new ballpark on the Southeast waterfront. And the mayor seems unfazed by the mating dance between United's owners and Maryland politicians about moving the team to Prince George's County.

"I don't think they really want to go to Maryland," Fenty tells me.

The mayor says he is committed to examining proposals for a stadium at Poplar Point, across the Anacostia River from Nationals Park. "But it has to be something fair," he says.

Does that mean a very significant team contribution to the building costs? "Yes," the mayor says.

Fenty, who was an early and vocal opponent of the city paying to build the Nationals' stadium, is now a big booster of Nationals Park and the residential, retail and entertainment district that is expected to develop around it. He sees two important differences between the baseball and soccer situations: Baseball more easily lends itself to ancillary development because its season has 81 home games, whereas the soccer team plays only 16 games at RFK Stadium.

And Fenty is not persuaded that the Poplar Point development needs a stadium to succeed: "We have three excellent plans to develop Poplar Point by nationally recognized developers who are ready and willing to make a great development without a soccer stadium," the mayor says.

Still, he adds, he feels "a huge impetus to do something to keep the team here. They are clearly a valuable private enterprise contributor to the city."

Politically, Fenty is in a bind. Some of his supporters fondly remember his opposition to the baseball stadium, while others have happily embraced his late conversion to the cause of the Nats' park.

If he were to take a strong position against the soccer stadium, Fenty would run the risk of being blamed for the loss of United to Maryland. And he would be in for a blast of icy wind from Council member Marion Barry, whose Ward 8 includes the Poplar Point site and who has come out strongly for the stadium development.

But if the mayor made a strong pitch for the soccer stadium, he would incur the wrath of some of his most devoted and important supporters, the environmental community, which has lined up strongly against the stadium and in support of keeping as much of Poplar Point as possible as unspoiled parkland.

So Fenty is holding back, waiting to see how engaged the D.C. council and other factions in the city become on the issue.

Most likely scenario: Delay. The worsening economic situation makes it ever harder to justify pumping big money into a stadium that would not significantly expand the tax base. Since Maryland's not likely to be eager to put up big bucks right now either, the wait and see move is probably Fenty's friend. But this is one that can't be put off indefinitely: The city will want to do something big with the RFK Stadium site in the next few years, and that would leave United homeless.

Fenty assures me that he has no intention of using the possible demolition of RFK as a threat against D.C. United. That, he says, is not how he wants the District to do business.

Is there a deus ex machina in this play? Some on the mayor's staff still say it's possible to find United another site in the city. The District is not exactly chockablock with wide open spaces available for sports facilities. The thin roster of possibilities when Major League Baseball was scouting for locations proved that out. But a soccer stadium's footprint could be smaller. Ideas, anyone?

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