- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 31, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Nearly 39,000 people went to Nationals Park on Sunday to watch the Washington Nationals’ latest homestand finale, a 10-2 win over the St. Louis Cardinals.

Attendance has dipped slightly from last season, with the average of 29,304 fans per game down 2,753 from last year.

Still, it’s a healthy attendance in a place that more than 10 years ago didn’t even exist. And, the cash register is still ringing up more than anyone could have imagined when the fight took place to build a ballpark to bring baseball to Washington.

How much is the ballpark taking in? Well, let’s say if city officials wanted to, they could pay off the 30-year mortgage on the $691 million ballpark — a $585 million debt now down to $395 million — 10 years early.

Let’s just say they’ve got $21 million a year in walking-around money.

“We could easily pay it off after 20 years instead of 30 years, and maybe even faster than that,” said longtime D.C. council member Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat, the chairman of the council’s Committee on Finance and Revenue and the one who led the fight on the city council for funding for the ballpark that would help bring the Montreal Expos to Washington in 2004.

The cries of financial ruin and tax nightmares that ballpark opponents carried at the time into the debate against paying for the new ballpark ring hollow now, as the city’s coffers are overflowing with ballpark revenue. The city has $21 million a year more than needed to cover costs.

“The latest figures I am looking at from the CFO says, ‘I am pleased to certify that the latest cash collected from the ballpark fees are about $35 million annually — $21 million more than the amount needed,’” Evans said. “I’m guessing that the debt service on the outstanding debt is $14 million a year, and we collected $35 million — about $21 million more than what we need.”

The ballpark, which opened in 2008, was financed through three revenue streams that didn’t exist before it was built. One was a utility tax that fell on the federal government and some commercial businesses. There was no residential tax involved. The second was the ballpark fee — businesses paying different amounts based upon gross receipts. The third was the ballpark itself — the rent and the sales taxes collected on the ballpark. Those three streams were going to service the debt.

Well, they’ve gone beyond that. The ballpark has been a gold mine for the city and has been rewarding for Evans, who battled for its financing against opposition from a number of council members — such as Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat, who remains on the council 12 years later.

When I asked Evans if he felt vindication with the overwhelming financial success of the ballpark, given how bitter the fight was on the council to pay for it, he said he does.

“The ballpark vote, 12 times it was a 7-6 vote on the council,” Evans said. “Our current chairman, Phil Mendelson, voted against baseball 12 times. Adrian Fenty, who went on to throw out the first pitch, voted against baseball 12 times. I could go on and on. For various reasons, these people felt their constituents wanted them to vote against this. I don’t feel surprised. But yes, I feel vindicated.”

The ballpark actually bailed out the city during the recession. “There was a point that I am not happy about back in 2009 or 2010 when the recession hit and the city needed money quickly. They used the additional money from the ballpark to balance the budget,” Evans said. “We don’t do that anymore.

“And finally, it is a real asset to the city to have a baseball team,” he said. “People love it. And, if you are a resident of the District of Columbia, and you don’t go to a baseball game, that stadium is not costing you anything. You are not paying for the stadium unless you go to a game, and that’s the way it should be.”

It is not just the ballpark itself. When a region commits to a project like this, the long-term vision is to change a part of the city. Though it has been slow, Nationals Park has been a success in the neighborhood where it sits.

“The second part of the success story is the value of the land surrounding the ballpark,” Evans said. “Prior to construction, the land around the ballpark was kind of run-down. We didn’t collect a whole lot of taxes there. The land wasn’t worth much. Well, today, that has dramatically changed. You can see for yourself as you drive around there.

“From my best estimate, we are collecting about $70 million additional revenue and property taxes every year, and there [are] sales taxes and income taxes as businesses locate and open up and residents move there,” Evans said. “You could be looking at an additional $100 million a year in additional tax revenue that wasn’t there before, and you cannot argue that it would have happened anyway. It happened because we built the ballpark.

“With every one of these major projects I’ve done ­— the Verizon Center many years ago was a fight, a 7-6 vote on the council several times, and people argued that it was a terrible idea and would ruin downtown, but it was catalyst that produced the downtown we have today,” Evans said. “The Convention Center, all that fighting, and the convention center Marriott hotel — I’m told by Marriott [it] is one of their most profitable hotels in their system. It runs at the highest occupancy rate of any hotel around.

“Without these projects, I always say, and I don’t know if it is an accurate observation, but one nonetheless, we would be Detroit or Baltimore or Cleveland, places that never recovered from the demise that they hit,” Evans said. “The District of Columbia was largely bankrupt in 1995 with the control board and everything. Today, we are the most dynamic city in America. Finances are stronger than any city, county or state. These projects were catalysts that helped make that happen. Without them I am not sure we would have recovered.”

What might all this rousing success mean for the future of a stadium for the Washington Redskins in Washington?

“That is an ongoing negotiation,” Evans said. “I don’t know if they are related or not. The Redskins were here and they left and the logical place to put them is back at RFK Stadium. If you pulled the governors of Maryland and Virginia aside and asked them to be real honest, they would say the best place would be RFK Stadium.

“As time goes on, with the name maybe less of an issue these days, negotiations could occur that would return the team to RFK Stadium,” he said. “Then the idea is to work out how to pay for the stadium. The city is not in a position to do what we did with Nats Park to pay for a stadium. That would be something the NFL and Redskins would have to figure out.

“But, the city is in a position to prepare the land for the stadium, like we did with the [upcoming D.C. United] stadium and the Verizon Center. We didn’t pay for either of those, but we did prepare the land and that is what cities generally do in that situation. When that time comes, we will be in a situation where we will be able to do that.”

Until then, there is some unfinished business at Nationals Park ­— an invitation to throw out the first pitch before a game, a show of thanks for Evans.

He threw out the first pitch before a game in 2010, “but I had to buy it,” Evans said, laughing. “It was a gift from someone to me to throw out the first pitch. It was fun and I would be happy if anyone ever asked me to do it again.”

For $21 million a year in walking-around money for the city of Washington, someone should ask Evans to take the mound again.

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