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A Stadium Plan That Won't Pay Off

A soccer stadium in Anacostia would be a splendid addition to Washington's resurgence as a sports town. But the city has no business paying for such a facility or grabbing riverfront parkland to build it.

Not all sports facilities are born alike. Over the past decade, as it has gone from zero major league sports teams to five, the District has learned that entertainment venues can be powerful engines of economic development.

It's hard to walk around Washington's East End without seeing how Abe Pollin's sports arena inspired block after block of development, creating a bustling neighborhood of theaters, museums, restaurants and shops. At the city's southern edge, the Nationals' new baseball stadium, not two months into operations, is raking in far more tax dollars than anticipated.

Now, as The Washington Post's David Nakamura reported yesterday, a coalition of D.C. Council members wants to pump some of that baseball revenue into a soccer stadium at Poplar Point, a sadly neglected riverfront park in Southeast.

If the owners of D.C. United want to pay for such a facility, as they initially said they would, that's a deal any city should embrace -- and there's plenty of privately owned land in Anacostia just right for a stadium. But if Mayor Adrian Fenty and the council now propose to pay $150 million toward a 27,000-seat stadium -- exactly what Fenty said earlier this year would be an inappropriate use of tight resources -- then the District is failing to understand a very simple set of numbers.

Here they are: 220, 100, 35, 8.

The downtown arena Pollin built with his own $220 million (the District kicked in for infrastructure around the site) hosts roughly 220 events a year, including Wizards and Mystics basketball, Capitals hockey, the circus, concerts and conferences. (Billboard magazine ranked Pollin's arena ninth on the planet in profits.)

The baseball stadium, paid for by D.C. government bonds based on tax receipts from fans and businesses, will host 81 Nats games, plus a smattering of concerts and other sports and special events such as a papal visit, for a total of about 100 dates.

A Major League Soccer stadium, using other teams' facilities as a guide, might be used 35 times a year. That's better than the eight or so times an NFL stadium sees action each year, but it is nowhere near the intensity of use that can gin up crowds for an entertainment district.

And if a city doesn't get ancillary development out of investing in a sports facility, then it cannot justify pumping public dollars into a profit-making business. If Prince George's County has seen any economic benefit from playing host to the Redskins, please let the residents of Landover know, because all they've gotten is a world-class traffic nightmare.

Major League Soccer is in the midst of a nationwide campaign to win public money for its teams' stadiums. In Salt Lake City, after years of bitter political battles, a suburban stadium is now rising, with the team paying 60 percent of the cost and state and local governments footing the rest of the bill. In New Jersey, local governments sold $40 million in bonds to buy land for the New York Red Bulls' $220 million, 25,000-seat stadium; team owners pay the rest. In Chester, outside Philadelphia, officials planning a $115 million, 18,500-seat facility to lure a soccer franchise expect state and local funding to cover most of the cost. In Ohio, after voters turned down public financing, the Columbus Crew franchise paid for a no-frills stadium.

Victor MacFarlane, the investor who bought D.C. United last year, initially said he'd pay for a stadium himself, but that was contingent on his winning the right to build retail and housing around the stadium. He lost that competition, so now he wants the city to pay for the bulk of the stadium.

Whoever pays, a decision to build at Poplar Point would represent another flip-flop on the part of the city. Less than six months ago, Fenty told me -- as he had assured environmentalists who were among his most avid supporters -- that Poplar Point was probably not a good place for a sports facility, that although it was important to keep United in the District, there were good alternative sites for a stadium.

Poplar Point is a national park, a place of remarkable beauty that could become a gateway to the river, a gathering spot for recreation and exploration of nature. In this divided city, the notion that an irreplaceable riverfront park is the right place for a stadium development would never pass the laugh test over in the affluent, white part of town. Grab a chunk of Rock Creek Park for a stadium and massive parking lots? The ultimate nonstarter. But in poor, black Anacostia, all politicians and developers have to do is keep reciting a mantra of "jobs, jobs, jobs," and maybe they can get away with a land grab of the most cynical kind.

Remember those numbers, though. A stadium that gets used maybe 30 times a year isn't going to spark development, and it certainly won't create many decent jobs.

Join me at noon today for "Potomac Confidential" at

By Marc Fisher |  May 29, 2008; 8:07 AM ET
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So many things wrong with this article its hard to know where to begin.

First, Poplar Point is going to be built over whether there is a stadium there or not, so your idea of it being preserved as some sort of parkland is laughable.

Secondly, there already IS a stadium in Rock Creek Park.

Third, your estimate of 30 (or is it 35?) events per year in the stadium is far too low for a stadium that would not only host DC United, but also a women's soccer team, a lacrosse team, concerts and high school sporting events as well.

Finally, the figures you cite would not be for "the bulk of the stadium", they simply cover infrastructure THAT WILL BE THERE WITH OR WITHOUT THE STADIUM!

I don't see how you could be so willfully ignorant, but then I remembered that you're just a really good (paid) troll.

Posted by: Where is the Ombudsman?? | May 29, 2008 9:21 AM

If the baseball stadium could not have been built where it now stands (on the NW side of the Anacostia River), would you have been in favor of building the Nationals Stadium in Poplar Point?

The land will be developed by Clark. It is not a question of soccer stadium or open park space. It is a question of soccer stadium or office buildings.

DC Govt has waited too long (and Fenty opening up the PP bidding -- which Clark rightfully won) removed MacFarlane from the initial and full development of Poplar Point.

The Clark development plan allows for the option of a stadium. Your argument that the DC City Council shouldn't spend tax revenues up to a certain level to assist with the stadium and/or its infrastructure is laughable given your stance in favor of of the National ballpark.

Posted by: Bert | May 29, 2008 9:33 AM

Wow Fisher, you get paid to write this crap? How does one get a gig like that? What'd you spend 15 minutes doing some online research and another 30 putting numbers and information out of your ass to get this column?

If I made the mistakes you make in writing at work I'd be taken aside and questioned what the hell is going on. If I did it with the regularity you do it, I'd probably be looking for a new job, yet in your case The Post continues to pay you for it. What a job!

I used to have more respect for the paper but seeing how they let errors like this slide I wonder about all the other writers and how much bullsh*t is being written about all things from politics to world news to sports reporting.

Posted by: Matthai | May 29, 2008 9:46 AM

More slanted perspective from the Washington Post. I'm Shocked! Shocked I tell ya!

Posted by: VoiceOfReason | May 29, 2008 9:49 AM

OK Mr.Fisher, as you seem to spend an inordinate amount of time in SE and marvel at the beauty that is Poplar Point, care to explain to the residents of Ward 8 how a profiatble tax base will evaporate when Clark Construction builds whatever concrete jungle with no soccer stadium? How exactly will the District lure suburban dollars to a bunch of Ruby Tuesday's and IKEA's? We have plenty of those out here in the 'burbs. And what's the cost of the infrastructure for all those shiny new Taco Bell's going up anyway?

Posted by: NapoleonDynamite | May 29, 2008 9:59 AM

You may want to remember some Popular Point facts.

1. It's not a National Park. It's parkland currently owned by the Federal Government.

2. That land is being transferred to the District in a land swap deal in order to increase the tax base within the District, since the Federal Government is essentially a free-loader.

Please come out to a Anacostia Park clean up day, and discover how much "remarkable beauty" is truly there.

It's much more honest and straight forward if you say " I don't like soccer, and don't see why we need a stadium for it " as opposed to making stuff up.

Posted by: Vincent Grey Matter | May 29, 2008 10:01 AM

If Prince George's County has seen any economic benefit from playing host to the Redskins, please let the residents of Landover know, because all they've gotten is a world-class traffic nightmare.

Thank goodness the Anacostia stop on the Green Line would be about 1.5 blocks from the proposed soccer stadium.

Building this stadium in DC and on a Metro line is an ideal solution.

Letting United move to a Maryland venue is a mistake that DC already made with letting the NFL go out to Raljon. Eventually, the city will want its sport teams back. The simpler step would be to keep them here in the first place.

United is DC's team, and Poplar Point is a great new development that seems like the ideal home for a new urban stadium.

Posted by: Mitch | May 29, 2008 10:09 AM

"In this divided city, the notion that an irreplaceable riverfront park is the right place for a stadium development would never pass the laugh test over in the affluent, white part of town. Grab a chunk of Rock Creek Park for a stadium and massive parking lots? The ultimate nonstarter."

Hey Mark, what's this then?,-95.677068&sspn=48.641855,82.265625&ie=UTF8&ll=38.954088,-77.037866&spn=0.001468,0.002511&t=h&z=19

Oddly, that looks like a 7,500 seat stadium and a bunch of tennis courts surrounded by huge parking lots right smack dab in the middle of Rock Creek Park.

Posted by: Mike in Takoma Park | May 29, 2008 10:13 AM

I don't get why your "blog" and your "column" can be the same text. And yet you get two separate comments areas on

Well, here's a great comment from your "column" so obviously this applies here:

delantero wrote:
""In this divided city, the notion that an irreplaceable riverfront park is the right place for a stadium development would never pass the laugh test over in the affluent, white part of town""

Fisher, you are a disgrace. And the assumptions you place on the Anacostia residents (black or otherwise) is WAY over the line. Your hideous assumption that the residents are having the wool pulled over their eyes and that somehow white and affluent people would never allow such development because, well, they know better, is an affront to all DC residents.

You should be ashamed of yourself.

Keep in mind that, unlike your beloved baseball, DC United has spent countless hours with the community. They held community meetings to discuss plans for development. If you would ever drag yourself to a game, you might see members of Anacostia youth clubs in attendance (for free), and you'd see DC flags being waved by passionate fans.
5/29/2008 9:56:53 AM

Posted by: Arquero | May 29, 2008 10:14 AM

wow, just wow....that waterfront is beyond a disgrace, have you ever been there? Im out there on my boat wakeboarding in the potomac all the time, and we ride by poplar point......its not a parkland, its a frekaing wasteland!
go look at it yourself sometime.

and to reiterate what other people have said, and I have emailed you on before, all we have EVER asked for is infastucture costs that would HAVE TO BE PAID anyway!

we pay for stadium, look into it, asked victor and chang, talk to them, and mabye just mabye your get it right for once!

Posted by: captain | May 29, 2008 10:58 AM

Posted by: bloggers of the world | May 29, 2008 11:18 AM

Can you surmise that blog? I'm blocked at work, thanks...

Posted by: Anonymous | May 29, 2008 11:23 AM

Poplar Point is not parkland...
The city is not necessarilly proposing to pay for the stadium itself...
...I used to be pretty ambivalent about the stadium issue, but now I see it as a crucial investment in our part of town. If it were the only element to the Poplar Point redevelopment I probably wouldn't want it, but it isn't. If built it will be part of a major redevelopment that will include offices, townhouses, condos, apartments, retail, cultural space, and a 70-acre park.

And honestly, Anacostia could use some face-painted and passionate United / Freedom / Bayhawks fans walking its streets.

And then there's a link to "Clark's presentation on Poplar Point" --

Posted by: reblogs | May 29, 2008 11:34 AM

Thank you...

Posted by: Anonymous | May 29, 2008 11:37 AM

I find it interesting that Marc feels that FedEx Field provides nothing to the residents that live around it. The jobs at the field must all be for people from out of the county - not the best paying jobs in the world, but better than working for the Washington Post. The Post only makes employment news nowadays when they have another round of employee terminations. That helps the local economy a whole lot I am sure.

And the FedEx Field ticket sales, concessions, parking, etc. are completely tax free so the county doesn't get anything from that either. (sarcasm intended, since Marc is so inspirational)

But hey, if DC wants the Skins back they can pay for a new stadium all by themselves this time. The team paid for FedEx Field without any assistance by the city. Thanks to Mayor-For-Life Barely throwing his weight around the city lost their team and JKC built the stadium on his own.

A fact to consider before you start building a new football stadium: the new stadium for the Dallas Cowboys is costing over 1 BILLION dollars. You want the Redskins back in a DC stadium that bad? Go ahead and build them a stadium and ASK them to come back. Maybe they will, maybe they won't. Either way, the Redskins will make money.

As far as Anacostia is concerned, it's going to be developed one way or the other after the land swap. The city isn't going to let prime property like that go to waste without having something very taxable built on it. It doesn't matter who's in office, they are not THAT fiscally irresponsible to the residents of DC. Something will be built there so you can forget about that property being a "Park". A soccer stadium will be a good focal point for the area and create a few decent jobs too. Professional lacrosse is another good use for that stadium too, just in case you are interested. Not to mention the taxes collected by the city.

Posted by: SoMD | May 29, 2008 11:45 AM

The soccer stadium won't pull much development because it's too small and the picayunish events it'll hold won't be drawing a lot of big spending crowds.

Posted by: Stick | May 29, 2008 12:25 PM

hey stick:

we draw almost as much as nats do except during big games....and we have our big game, 48000+

and we actually stick around and drink and will pput more money back in then the nats have so far

Posted by: Anonymous | May 29, 2008 12:31 PM

Please oh please, no more public funds for sports stadia.

Posted by: JMG | May 29, 2008 12:37 PM

Mr. Fisher:

Have you or one of your assistants actually read H.R.3699? I mean, read it. Like comprehension and all? You should do us all a favor and do some research before you go off on your own agenda. Know the facts of the legislation and you'll see that your arguments are moot and kind of stupid.

Posted by: Research | May 29, 2008 1:35 PM

Please oh please, no more public funds for sports stadia.

Posted by: JMG | May 29, 2008 12:37 PM

First of all, it's a stadium, not stadia. The public funds are for the infrastructure for the development of Poplar Point, which have to be paid whether there is a stadium or not. Poplar Point will be developed. This "column" that Fish has slapped together is a stupid argument and a canard. Facts are facts. Legislation is legislation. H.R. 3699 was passed by congress and signed by W. H.R. 3699 calls for development at Poplar Point with the preservation of 70 acres as parkland. There are currently no acres of parkland there, just wasteland. So JMG, if that really is your name, why don't you pull your head out.

Posted by: Mountain Dew Comacho | May 29, 2008 1:52 PM

The soccer stadium won't pull much development because it's too small and the picayunish events it'll hold won't be drawing a lot of big spending crowds.
Posted by: Stick | May 29, 2008 12:25 PM

Oh, OK, so we'll make it bigger.

Nice word, picayunish, did you get that from the Readers Digest? Seriously, 27,000 is too small? How much does Nissan hold? The MCI Center? Cater Barron? The Tennis Stadium IN ROCK CREEK PARK. Also, DC United's average attendance, if the Nats reported butts going through the turnstile, is as much as the Nats.

Posted by: Fifty Cent Words | May 29, 2008 1:56 PM

Ok, you say in your discussion "Take a look at the schedules for those Major League Soccer teams that have already built stadiums like the one proposed for Washington--where are those concerts?"

Ok, I did. Sure looks like Chicago has quite a few things going on at Toyota Park.

Also note that Toyota Park in out in the Suburbs, think what an urban park would bring.

Posted by: Rocko | May 29, 2008 2:25 PM

Publicly-funded stadiums have never paid for themselves anywhere in the USA in the last four decades and have not had any positive economic impact on local communities.

For a list of strategies stadium salesmen have used to obscure the facts, see:
The Devil is in the Details: Neutralizing Critical Studies of Publicly Subsidized Stadiums at

Posted by: Mike Licht | May 29, 2008 2:41 PM

Thanks Rocko,

I submitted a question during the chat and pulled up the schedules of the Home Depot Center, Toyota Park, and Pizza Hut park. In a span of about 8 minutes, and there were concert and other listings.

Mike Licht, the MCI/Verizon center included in that? It was certainly a catalyst for that area's growth, and the city forked over some coin for that. Sure Abe payed for the building, but the District gave incentives, and paid for infrastructure....

Posted by: Kim | May 29, 2008 4:35 PM

Another set of numbers -- slightly more complicated, but also slightly more relevant:

Baseball stadium: $611 million (and that low only through Enron-caliber accounting) for 100 events = $6.11 million per event.

Soccer stadium: $150 million (Gray/Evans offer) for 35 events = $4.28 million per event.

And the attendance would tend to be comparable.

Now, this is only *slightly* more relevant, because, as Mike Licht points out, sports stadia are a terrible investment as a rule. So, much as I love D.C. United, and as rotten as the Nats and the Lerners are, the best that can be said for Poplar Point is that it's a less bad investment than Nationals' Stadium.

Posted by: cminus | May 29, 2008 6:01 PM

Kim: MCI/Verizon center was paid for with private money, not by taxpayers -- but DC gave builder Abe Pollin a big tax break, if I am not mistaken. The city forgot to get the arena to kick in on event night security costs, though; they are substantial and take police off patrol duty.

On the other hand, if the arena had not been built, DC would probably not have a Hooters.

Posted by: Mike Licht | May 29, 2008 6:23 PM

Kim: MCI/Verizon center was paid for with private money, not by taxpayers -- but DC gave builder Abe Pollin a big tax break, if I am not mistaken.

You are mistaken. The District paid over $70 million in land acquisition and site preparation costs (in 1990's dollars; inflation and skyrocketing land costs in the past decade would push that number close to $200 million today). Abe Pollin also got a reduction in the property taxes on the arena and concessions on certain business taxes. In addition, the Arena is now asking for an additional $50 million for maintenance and repairs in exchange for giving the District partial ownership rights in 40 years (2047). This is under discussion but has not been approved by the Council as yet. So by the most generous figures (not adjusted for inflation), that is $120 million PLUS tax breaks that District tax payers have paid/may pay for the Verizon Center. Please do your homework before attempt to make rational arguments; you're as bad as Fisher when trying to support your weak argument with phony figures.

Posted by: Throwin | May 31, 2008 2:23 PM

if fisher died in a fire, would anybody care?

Posted by: dc | June 1, 2008 12:06 PM

What I always find puzzling is that the supporters of this idiocy always say this money will be spent if the stadium is built or not? If so, why does the estimate from DC United keep going up? And why does DC united have any business telling a local government how much infrastructure will cost.

MLS is obviously becoming a low cost front for corrupt property deals. DC will pay because it is a stupid, poorly run city. But it doesnt make it right

Posted by: Gdub | June 8, 2008 7:56 AM

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