Things You Wouldn't Do--Hospital and Stadium Division
Big governments and big businesses don't always act as you would with your money. Somehow, when the numbers get insanely large, and when situations get very complicated, the basic rules that govern how you watch your dollars go out the window.
Two examples from the past 24 hours: The D.C. government, despite a clear and scary warning from its own chief financial officer that the company the city is helping to buy an ailing hospital is in very shaky condition and is unlikely to improve its situation, decides to pump $79 million into a doomed effort to revive the deeply troubled Greater Southeast Community Hospital.
And the Washington Nationals, having failed to secure sufficient parking to serve the fans who will come to their new stadium next spring, announce that while their season ticket holders will have access to nearby lots and garages, the mere mortals who make the difference between a struggling franchise and a thriving one will be shunted over to the old RFK Stadium lots, from which they will have to take a shuttle bus to the new ballpark. (This apparently comes as news to the city, which controls those RFK lots.)
1) If your beloved sister were in deep financial crisis and desperately needed help, and someone came to you and offered to pay her back rent and refurbish her apartment and get her back up onto her feet, and that someone then revealed himself to be in lousy financial condition himself, and that someone asked you to kick in a big bucket of cash to pay for him to help your struggling sister, you would tell that someone to take a very long and winding hike.
But the D.C. government, in a unanimous vote by its Council and unreasonably optimistic statements by Mayor Adrian Fenty, has decided to take that deal. The city is going to shell out $79 million to support Specialty Hospitals of America's proposal to take over Greater Southeast Community Hospital, the city's only hospital east of the Anacostia River.
D.C. politicians feel compelled to do whatever it takes to maintain and improve health facilities in an underserved part of the city, and that's a good and worthy goal. But as the city's chief financial officer, Natwar Gandhi, practically shouted from the mountaintops yesterday, this is not the way to save Greater Southeast. Gandhi issued a report stating that Specialty is "not in strong financial condition." The company's plan for the D.C. hospital is too vague to promise any success in turning around an institution where conditions are so bad that the facility may lose its accreditation. And, Gandhi said, the District stands to be left holding the bag, committed to huge additional payments as Greater Southeast continues its long decline.
Essentially, the deal the city cut would force D.C. taxpayers to pay to let Specialty get the land under Greater Southeast--land that is certainly worth far more than the health care facility that sits on it--and the hospital company in return commits to improving Greater Southeast so that by 2011, its emergency room operates at least as well as the average hospital in the city. Gandhi notes that Specialty's plan for the hospital is so far-fetched that it stakes its financial future on getting licensed to provide both short-term and long-term acute care beds--something the federal government actually prohibits.
And a real estate company being set up by the hospital's new owner plans to sell off parts of Greater Southeast's 17-acre site, which sounds like that's Specialty's real interest in buying the place. Gandhi warns that if Specialty is allowed to sell that land to developers, the city faces the risky possibility that the hospital will in essence be selling off the security that backs up the taxpayers' loans to Specialty.
Sounds pretty shaky, pretty scary. But not to the politicians. After all, it's not their money.
2) If you owned a new business in town, and you'd been given the stupendous gift of a free building in which to conduct your operations, and you were well on the way toward developing a great, popular product, and all you really had to do was make certain that your customers could easily and happily get to your shop to spend their money, you probably wouldn't decide to tell those customers that they were not permitted to drive to your shop's neighborhood, but instead would have to drive a couple of neighborhoods away, park and board a shuttle bus to come visit you.
In fact, you'd sooner search for another location than commit such an egregious offense against your own customer base.
But the Washington Nationals announced yesterday that fans who are not season ticket holders who nonetheless "choose to drive to Nationals Park" will be allowed to park at RFK Stadium, "with a speedy and free roundtrip shuttle service to the games." Oh boy, won't that be fun! You'll get to drive to the old stadium, park, and take a seat in a bus that will then sit in traffic and eventually get you to the new stadium. Isn't that special?
As quick, efficient and under budget as the city's construction of the new stadium has been so far, the search for sufficient parking in the new Southeast waterfront area has been a slow-moving fiasco. In good part, this is the fault of the federal government, which has obstinately refused to let Nats fans use the many hundreds of parking spaces that sit empty in the Transportation Department headquarters each evening. The usual phony security concerns are hauled out--though somehow the feds manage to get around that at the far more likely terror target of the Reagan Building near the National Mall. Then there's an increasingly ugly dispute between Metro and one of the major landowners in the ballpark district--a battle that threatens to hold up completion of the expanded transit station a block away from the stadium.
The bottom line remains that the Nats have so far failed to line up enough parking spaces to handle the expected crowds. So now, in a lovely bit o' spin, the Nats put out a news release assuring all season ticket holders that they indeed will have the opportunity to buy access to parking spaces near the stadium. It's the non-swells who look like they will be left driving to some other quadrant of the city to park.
The good news about sports venues in the city is that, as RFK and the Abe Pollin Center have repeatedly shown us, fans from the city and the suburbs alike are quite willing to travel by Metro to take in a game. The Nats were pleasantly surprised by the very high percentage of fans who came to RFK by train, just as the decision to build the downtown arena with very little parking proved to be a brilliant one, as it encouraged the majority of the crowd to come by Metro. But a downtown arena that seats 16,000 is quite different from a baseball park on the edge of the city, with a capacity of more than 40,000.
Even if more than half the crowd takes Metro, that leaves thousands of fans who will drive to the new stadium, and they may be in for a rough go of it for the crucial first few seasons, when most folks' first impressions of the ballpark experience will be shaped.
A shuttle bus won't do. Parking in the shadow of the abandoned old stadium is a bad joke.
If someone's building you a $611 million stadium, as the District is for Major League Baseball, the least you can do in return is to make certain that it is a relatively easy place to get to. The city is doing its part--it has already nearly finished work on clearing out the elevated roadway that used to block Capitol Street near the new stadium. Metro is doing its part--work is well underway on the expanded Navy Yard station, even if the legal dispute threatens to slow progress. There's plenty of empty land right near the stadium; after all, that was the whole point of developing the ballpark there. The Nats need to pay whatever it takes to create temporary parking facilities to get fans through the first couple of seasons, before the new development near the park is ready with large, underground garages.
That's what you would do to protect your business, right?
By Marc Fisher |
October 24, 2007; 7:31 AM ET
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