So it appears that plans by D.C. United to move into Prince George’s County are about as dead as Jacob Marley. But, like Jacob Marley, they could always be resurrected in some way. Though it is unclear how at this point. The public support for a soccer stadium in the county just appears very slim right now, after the county council unanimously rejected a proposal that would have allowed for a study and negotiations.
While we’ve learned that stadium plans should never be viewed as a done deal until shovels actually hit the ground (or even after), the quick end to this proposal comes as a bit of surprise. Let’s review the timeline:
-September, 2008: At the request of the Maryland Stadium Authority, Crossroads Consulting releases a feasability study for a soccer stadium in Prince George’s County. The study generally says the stadium could work in the county and spur economic development.
-Feb. 16: D.C. United holds a press conference announcing plans to move into a new facility in Prince George’s County. Delegate Melony Griffith said she will introduce legislation to the House that would allow the Maryland Stadium Authority to sell about $178 million bonds to finance the facility. Team officials said the bonds would be paid back using tax revenue from the stadium and rent payments from the team. County executive Jack Johnson and three council members are present in support of the plan.
-March 17: The Maryland House Appropriations Committee holds its first hearing on the bill, but Griffith announces that the bill has been amended to remove any mention of a bond sale. The amended version of the bill simply would allow for a study of possible stadium plans and for the team to begin talks with various stakeholders.
-March 24: A committee of the county council rejects the proposal, but chairman Marilynn Bland says it is not the council’s final word on the issue.
-March 30: The House Appropriations Committee votes 17-7 to approve the bill, but it is sent back because amendments to the bill turned out to be unconstitutional. The full house does not take up the issue in time for a “crossover deadline” that would have allowed the senate to take up and approve the bill.
-April 8: County County votes 8-0 to oppose the bill, killing whatever momentum was left at the state level. Included in those 8 votes are the three council members that were present at the original press conference.
So what happened?
Well, these things never fall apart for any one specific reason. But here are a few possibilities:
-Political and financial reality. It’s one thing to support a stadium plan when it is first introduced, but the public backlash for this apparently came strong and hard. In the end, delegates and council members listened to their constituents, many of whom didn’t understand why the state and county would be moving forward with a stadium when the economy was in such rough shape.
-D.C. United got ahead of itself. When the team went so far as to reveal financing details at its first press conference, some people got nervous and thought that the team had already struck a deal and would be moving quickly with little consultation with the public. True or not, that perception led the state bill to be softened to take out any mention of financing. United tried to set the record straight about what folks were actually voting for, but by then, the damage was done. Ultimately, the county council rejected the plan on the grounds that it had not been consulted enough.
-The proposed financing plan just wasn’t good enough. D.C. United’s original financing plan called for a $190 million stadium paid back through tax revenue from the stadium and annual rent from the team. The team thought it had a good plan that required no new tax dollars, and it’s true that there have been a number of stadiums built with more lopsided amounts of public dollars. But the plan did not require team owner Victor MacFarlane, a very wealthy real estate developer, to invest any of his own money up front to pay for the stadium. Futhermore, to use the stadium taxes and rent to pay back the construction of the stadium itself means that money can’t be used to fund other community needs. Any economic benefit from the stadium would have to come from other development in the area, and while the Crossroads Consulting study suggested tens of millions of dollars in impact could come, many other economists have been skeptical of the “stadiums bring economic development” argument.
So what happens now? Well, D.C. United will still wait out this session of the legislature in case a miracle happens. After that, it’s basically back to the drawing board, though a team spokesman said last night, without elaborating, that there are discussions with other jurisdictions. What would those jurisdictions be? I don’t know at this point, but let’s look at the possibilities:
-Somewhere else in Maryland. True, United could always look to another Maryland county, but any plan would still need approval from the state legislature. The only way the state legislature would approve a plan is if there was strong support at the county level. That could happen, but it seems unlikely in the short term.
-The District of Columbia. Well, Mayor Adrian Fenty has made clear he does not like the idea of public funding for a stadium. And he has been blamed for killing a possible deal at Poplar Point, across from Nationals Park. But it’s possible something with D.C. could get resurrected, particularly if council members like Jack Evans and Marion Barry can be brought back into the fray. The relationship between the city and team is not as sour as some people believe, and the team is called D.C. United, after all, and has played in the city since 1996. Ultimately, however, it will come down to whether the two sides would be able to strike an economic deal that is palatable for everyone. And that could be a tall order. One thing to note: Fenty had awarded development rights to Poplar Point to Clark Realty, which was seen as a sign that D.C. United was out. But Clark is now no longer part of the picture there. So if MacFarlane and Co. wanted to start over with the city at Poplar Point, they could.
-Outside of Washington. This would obviously be a nightmare of D.C. United fans. At this point, there is no indication this will happen, but Major League Soccer also doesn’t have unlimited patience or money. The team simply can’t keep playing at RFK. If another city (such as St. Louis, who just lost out on a bid for an expansion team) were to come forward with a favorable stadium proposal, MLS and United would at least have to listen. And don’t be surprised if another city is used as leverage to get officials in the Washington area to act.