Available: Free Money for Renovations. Apply to D.C. Gov't.
Baseball got $600 million. Soccer's getting ready to receive its megamoney in the form of free, prime riverfront property. Football won't be far behind. So what's a poor shlump who actually paid his own way supposed to do?
Consider the case of Abe Pollin, who did the right thing. While the billionaires of the other professional sports franchises held up the District and got or are soon to get spanking new stadia courtesy of the District of Columbia, Pollin built the MCI Center with his own money, a whopping $220 million of it. Sure, the District kicked in $70 million for infrastructure--new streets, utilities and the like--but that's a reasonable investment of public money for a tax-generating facility like a sports arena, especially one that jumpstarted a whole new neighborhood of development that has provided a much-needed boost for the city's tax base.
But now Pollin looks back at his beneficence of a decade ago and has to ask himself, What kind of sucker was I? Of course the circumstances surrounding the baseball deal were quite different--Major League Baseball had the District over a barrel. It was pay for the stadium or don't get the team--remember, Commissioner Bud Selig affirmatively did not want to put a team in this market. Still, Pollin has to be kicking himself. So now he's asking the D.C. government for a $50 million handout for the purpose of sprucing up the 10-year-old hall--a new scoreboard, spiffier luxury boxes, flat-screen TVs for said suites, a new marquee outside. Not a single necessity in the package, just extra bling, presumably to justify higher ticket prices.
What would the city get for such largesse? In theory, some extra tax revenues if the improvements boosted attendance or attracted new events to the venue, but any such tax bonuses would be more than counterbalanced by the cost of paying the debt service on borrowing the $50 million. (Sure, the city's plan is to cover the payments on the loans by boosting the ticket tax at the arena, and most of that tax would be paid by the arena's majority-suburban visitor base, freeing city taxpayers of the burden. But any new borrowing puts the District closer to a dangerous level of borrowing that endangers its bond ratings on Wall Street.)
What else would the city get? Why, a lovely luxury suite of its own, 24 seats, rent-free, with a private bathroom, two TVs, a refrigerator, a food service area and an unobstructed view of all the action. Nifty little side benefit for our public servants.
Oh, and this too: In 2047, control of the arena would revert to the District. Of course, by then, the arena is likely to be long gone--the life expectancy of sports facilities in this country is just a few decades in this era of disposibility. (Actually, the 2047 thing is just an accounting trick, letting the city spread its bond payments out over 40 years.)
Is this sad deal really going to pass? I asked Mayor Adrian Fenty, who said, a bit coyly, that "I'm going to look at every deal differently," meaning that he has some significant questions about the soccer proposal for Poplar Point, that he'd love to have the Redskins back in town if Danny Snyder is really willing to pay for the bulk of a new stadium on the RFK site, and that after what Abe Pollin did for the District, the city is happy to return the favor in almost any way possible. Specifically asked about the Pollin deal, the mayor said it "could be good for all involved. There are pros and cons. Pollin is still fleshing out the proposal, but it is additional revenue on every ticket." Sounds like a qualified yes to me.
(The mayor sounded more skeptical about developer Victor MacFarlane's plan to build a soccer stadium along the Anacostia River in exchange for the right to develop the land around the facility. "That's a tougher case to make for the residents of the District of Columbia," Fenty told me.)
Pollin should resist the temptation to glom onto the city's stadium spending spree. He's got the money and he's already got a winning facility. He's also got a stellar reputation and it would be a shame to lose his place as the example everyone turns to when looking to show how sports facility deals should be made.
By Marc Fisher |
February 27, 2007; 7:00 AM ET
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