In September 2015, Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser and Ted Leonsis, owner of the NBA’s Washington Wizards and the WNBA’s Washington Mystics, announced plans to construct a $56 million sports and entertainment complex in the Congress Heights neighborhood, in Ward 8 of D.C.
Last week, Bowser led the demolition of two buildings on the vacant St. Elizabeth’s Hospital campus, marking the beginning of the arena’s construction. Scheduled to open in September 2018, the site will serve as a new state-of-the-art practice facility for the Wizards and as the home stadium for the Mystics.
The venue will also host non-sports events, including concerts. According to a recent press release from the mayor’s office, the 5,000-seat venue is expected to attract approximately 400,000 visitors per year, generate $90 million in new revenue over the next 20 years and create more than 600 construction jobs and 300 permanent jobs.
City politicians and business leaders claim that this ambitious and expensive construction project will spur economic revitalization and job creation in Ward 8, described by the late Marion Barry, the former mayor of the District, as “the least, the lost and the last.”
Located on the east side of the Anacostia River in southeastern D.C., Ward 8 exhibits the highest poverty and unemployment rates in the city.
Mayor Bowser is right to invest in a long-neglected and underserved area of the city; however, the closed-door decision to build a sports stadium, with $50 million of construction costs drawn from D.C. taxpayers, gives this editorial board considerable reason to pause.
Based on precedent both in D.C., with the construction of the Verizon Center and Nationals Park, and throughout the United States, it is clear that stadium development does more to benefit business interests than community members. Team owners receive taxpayer money while the public shoulders massive debt and suffers from the gentrification of local communities — the effects of which include skyrocketing housing costs, closing of local businesses and loss of local culture.
Teams are fond of making claims about building community and civic pride when it suits them, but the St. Louis Rams provide a cautionary tale about where teams’ loyalties truly lie: After using similar rhetoric to secure $400 million in stadium financing in 1995, the Rams finalized a move to Los Angeles a month ago, leaving the city, county and state governments with a combined $152 million in outstanding debt. So far, the Rams’ “civic engagement” has not yet helped pay back the city for building the team a stadium.
There is a reason that team owners, city governments and stadium developers avoid a democratic process for stadium financing at all costs: Given the choice, the public does not want to spend tax dollars to cover the costs of billion-dollar enterprises. The Atlanta Braves baseball team and the Cobb County Commission in Georgia, for example, announced plans to spend $397 million in tax funds to fund the Atlanta Braves’ new stadium without any public input.
When asked why by NBC’s local Atlanta news team, the Braves’ president, John Schuerholz, shamelessly answered that, “If it had leaked out, the deal would not have gotten done … people would have started taking the position of, ‘we don’t want this.’”
Though this project is already underway, we feel that it is important to approach similar development strategies in the future with a critical eye.
It is worth asking how Ward 8 residents will benefit from the Washington Wizards’ receiving new practice facilities and how many visitors will actually travel across the river to watch the Washington Mystics play, as they struggle even now to attract an audience.
There are better ways to invest tens of millions of dollars and support sustainable job creation than partnering with billionaire team owners who demand that the public fund their new enterprises.
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