- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 10, 2006

In the latest installment of the D.C. baseball stadium soap opera, the new Washington Nationals owner is clashing with the city and another developer hoping to build near the stadium. On the surface, the argument is about parking. The Nationals want above-ground parking garages while the city wants more complicated and probably more expensive garages that would support other development like stores, offices and housing. The Nationals contend that the city’s preferred option is too expensive and would impose unacceptable delays on stadium construction.

Don’t be fooled. This isn’t really an argument about parking garages or construction deadlines. Nor have the Nationals suddenly become proponents of sound city budgeting after extracting a $611 million stadium from taxpayers.

The current brouhaha is really just another attempt by baseball to fleece the city.

Here’s the real story:Modern stadiums are designed to encourage fans to spend their money inside the stadium, where baseball keeps the revenues. Team owners understand the profit potential of stadium sales.That’s why Major League Baseball insisted that the contract it signed with the District mandate that taxpayers provide “market-appropriate concession, entertainment and retail areas” inside the stadium. Competition from businesses outside the stadium would make the stadium less profitable to the Nationals.

In other words, it is simply not in the team’s interest to see development outside the stadium. Insisting on large, above-ground garages will reduce competition to stadium sales by making development around the stadium more difficult.

Baseball has had remarkable success generating corporate welfare for itself. City leaders gave baseball a monstrous subsidy in the form of a public-funded stadium despite the mountains of research showing that stadiums rarely have any positive economic impact.

But that’s water under the bridge. Those of us who opposed a publicly financed stadium had our say and finally just shook our heads in despair at the shortsightedness of our elected officials and hoped for the best. Baseball, however, couldn’t leave well enough alone — they want to extract every possible advantage they can.

Team owners, unlike politicians, also understand that fans’ budgets for entertainment and dining out are generally fixed. If fans spend money on one form of entertainment they won’t spend it on another. So if restaurants and shops open up just outside the stadium, some fans will not shop and eat inside the stadium, and that’s bad for baseball.

Studies show that stadiums rarely help revitalize neighborhoods, despite claims by biased parties to the contrary. The one chance D.C. has to buck that trend is to create an environment friendly to investment and development around the stadium.

I do not know whether spending extra money on underground garages is worthwhile. But D.C. officials must understand that baseball does not share the vision of a revitalized neighborhood. Sure, they want the paths from the parking garage and Metro to the stadium to be safe and well-lit so that fans will come to see games, but they do not want competition from stores in the neighborhood for fans’ dollars. Surrounding the stadium with large, above-ground parking garages will ensure that come game day, all fan spending will benefit the team owners.

Baseball pulled the wool over our representatives’ eyes once and we have to live with their poor choice to use public funds to build a gilded stadium. Don’t let baseball do it again.Today’s debate isn’t about parking garages. It’s about the future of development around the stadium. Development would be good for the city, but baseball doesn’t want it because it would hurt their bottom line. Hopefully this time our elected representatives will stand firm and put the city’s best interests first.

Scott Wallsten is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior fellow at the AEI-Brookings Joint Center for Regulatory Studies.

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