Crony Capitalism

Washington, D.C.'s Subsidies for New Soccer Stadium Delayed, Thank God.


Last year, Washington Nationals managing owner and billionaire real estate tycoon Ted Lerner had an idea: build a retractable roof over the Nats baseball stadium and stick the taxpayers with the $300 million tab. That's on top of the more than $600 million the District already shelled out to build the stadium that charges fans $9 for a Miller Lite. But in an unusual twist to an otherwise routine story, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray reportedly started laughing when he heard the proposal and threw it out.

D.C. taxpayers may have weathered that particular crony capitalist squall, but more dark clouds have been lowering on the horizon. For over a year and a half, developers, District officials—including Gray—and D.C. United, the city's Major League Soccer team, have been negotiating a sweetheart deal for the franchise. Unhappy with the Washington Senators' old stomping grounds, D.C. United wants politicians to unite behind a plan to bankroll up to half the cost of a new $300 million, 20,000-seat stadium.

The government largess will come in the form of land and infrastructure payments as well as tax breaks for the franchise. To justify this bald-faced cronyism, officials have promised the usual litany of bogus benefits: jobs, economic development, increased tax revenue, ad nauseum.

There is a chance that fiscal sanity will prevail, at least for the time being—not because of principled opposition to corporate welfare, sadly, but because of political infighting. The deal hinges on a pair of  property transfers to cobble together enough land on Buzzard Point for the stadium, including a relocation of the Reeves Municipal Center to Ward 8. Several council members have been skeptical about the plan.

Other recent developments also threaten to delay the project, hopefully indefinitely. In a completely nonpolitical move, of course, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson on Monday decided to postpone a council hearing on the proposal until after the election, reports The Washington Post:

Every candidate for mayor and council has said that their decision on whether to support the $300 million stadium would rest in part on the findings of a study commissioned by Mendelson (D) that was set to be released Tuesday at a council hearing.

Instead, his office announced that the hearing would take place the day after the election and that Mendelson wasn't sure whether the study, which details financial risks to the city, would be made public before voters go to the polls.

This despite Mendelson having been briefed earlier this month on the study's findings. Those privy to the briefing confirm that the study found issue with the city's financial assessments of the property transfers.

Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) interprets the postponement as a sign that the project is dead. Others think the move will only delay the council's consideration until January, when a new mayor occupies City Hall.

In either case, chalk one up for political gridlock saving the taxpayers some money for a few months. God only knows they'll need it: The Gray administration recently announced that the District's harebrained streetcar project faces further delays and will wreak commuter havoc when finished—all for a very pretty penny, indeed.