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In August, Ward 8 Councilmember Marion S. Barry Jr. told the Washington Post that he was “absolutely, unequivocally” against building a soccer stadium in his ward.
But that’s not stopping D.C. United from trying to sell the stadium on his home turf. The team is hoping to build a 24,000-seat venue on Poplar Point, a prime piece of real estate in the shadow of the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge. The facility would be part of a mixed-use development on a combination of federal parkland and private parcels just across the river from the new ballpark. A District-backed bill now moving through Congress aims to transfer the federally owned portions of Poplar Point to the city. Another bill would offer up the land to the highest bidder.
The soccer boys have one huge advantage over baseball: Fat-cat United owners promise to pay for the stadium. This summer, locally owned Global Sports and Entertainment bought the team from reclusive San Francisco bajillionaire Philip Anschutz. One big selling point for the group, led by former Akridge Co. exec Tim Kissler and Northern Virginia real-estate magnate Willi Lauterbach, was the possibility of the club’s operating its own stadium. (The team now shares RFK Stadium with the Washington Nationals.)
And, unlike the Nats, the team isn’t investing in a slick, multi-million-dollar media campaign to convince residents and city leaders that soccer on the Anacostia is the best bet for Poplar Point. Instead, D.C. United prefers a strategy that hews closer to the Ward 8 streets.
Team officials refused to pitch their new plan to LL. They prefer to present their spiel to community residents at a Nov. 15 discussion at Ballou Senior High School. Heading into that big sell, United officials are applying the lessons of Grass-Roots Organizing 101.
The team has handed over $8,880 to the Anacostia Coordinating Council (ACC) to organize the free community “dinner discussion” at Ballou. Lucky for LL, ACC Executive Director Philip Pannell is more forthcoming with information than the team. His itemized event budget relies on some time-tested ploys for winning over skeptics:
•Bring on the food. D.C. United is coughing up $2,500 for a buffet dinner that’s certain to help draw a crowd. ACC has picked a Ward 8 business, S&G Catering, to serve up the victuals.
•Make sure community opinion leaders leave with some goodies. The Ballou event budget includes $150 for a banner for D.C. school-board member William Lockridge. Pannell says Lockridge can use it when he marches in parades. A second banner is in the works for another event sponsor, the Ward 8 Business Council. A third banner will go to Women Like Us, a community environmental group.
•Suck up to the politicians—even the ones who oppose your stadium plan. The ACC budget includes $800 for automated phone calls to 7,726 Ward 8 residents. Barry has agreed to record a robo-call, solely to invite constituents to the Ballou meeting. After all, he’s still the go-to guy in places such as Congress Heights and Shipley Terrace.
Barry did not return calls for comment.
The Ballou event is the culmination of United’s quiet effort to chip away at Barry’s anti-stadium fervor. The team has gone after some local help: Ward 8 communications consultant Brenda Richardson has been pushing the stadium plan and is presumed to be on the United payroll. She’s not a big name among community activists, but she is a familiar face in the ward. The team has also snagged heavyweight lobbyists with strong local connections. D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton’s former Chief of Staff Jon S. Bouker, now of the Arent Fox law firm, is on board. Bouker’s colleague, Craig Engle, former counsel for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, is also on the soccer-stadium beat. The communications consultant et al. declined to communicate with LL.
Ward 8 activists say D.C. United’s efforts to win the hearts and minds of grass-roots community leaders have been percolating for months. The team has invited activists to lunches and dinners to lay the groundwork for their pitch. They’ve been reaching out to parents who often complain about a lack of recreational opportunities east of the river. Earlier this year, the team gave away 600 backpacks to Ward 8 children at a soccer-themed back-to-school event. This week, the team held a mini soccer camp for kids at the Barry Farm public-housing development.
The Rev. Anthony J. Motley, a co-founder of the Anacostia Community Land Trust, isn’t impressed with the footballers’ neighborhood PR blitz: “The community is not for a soccer stadium on that site,” he says.
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Motley says too many community activists are being sucked in by United’s scheme. “They wined them and dined them,” he says. “Many people are not buying into the hype.” Motley thinks people working closely with the team are looking for a payoff down the road. “Some folks try to position themselves in the event that something like [the stadium] does happen so they can benefit from it,” he says.
Another meeting, sponsored by Motley’s group, is planned for Nov. 29 in order to discuss an alternate, stadium-free plan for Poplar Point that’s heavy on housing and retail.
Pannell says D.C. United’s approach is welcomed by many in Ward 8, which is seldom wooed by big-time suitors. He says the baseball stadium debate left east-of-the-river residents feeling steamrolled.
“Now here comes a corporation that says, ‘Hey, we would like to get your input,’” says Pannell, who recently attended his first soccer game at the team’s invitation. “‘We would like to take you to dinner and to a game.’ What is wrong with that?” he asks. “They’re treating people in Ward 8 as if they have some value, like they deserve to have a decent meal along with some discussion.”
Pannell says he won’t be getting rich on the $2,000 in the ACC budget set aside for the staff time needed to organize the Ballou event. He also notes that his group hasn’t taken any position on the stadium but is merely facilitating community dialogue.
The team’s early efforts are winning over some stadium skeptics. James Bunn, of the Ward 8 Business Council, says his group is “generally in favor of the idea….Basically, I think the stadium is going to be a good thing.” Bunn says that most people in the community, following Barry’s lead, still equate stadiums with boondoggles. “I don’t think you’re going to immediately convince them it is a good way to go,” he says.
United’s grass-roots sales job stands in stark contrast to the efforts of Major League Baseball, which rammed its stadium plan through with threats that it would take its team to the likes of Portland, Ore., Las Vegas, or Puerto Rico.
Rather than make the rounds at community meetings, baseball officials and their government backers mugged with kids wearing baseball uniforms, while the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission promised that baseball money would go toward new ballfields. The closest that baseball came to reaching out to the masses were closed-door meetings with select city leaders and councilmembers. The selling was left to City Administrator Robert Bobb after the deal was struck. He weathered many a hostile community meeting by preaching the upside of baseball’s take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum. In the end, the deciding votes—cast by three lame-duck councilmembers—didn’t reflect the voters’ sentiment.
If the polls related to a publicly funded stadium are to be believed, about two-thirds of city residents oppose the idea.
And that was for the national pastime, the game of Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron, and Willie Mays. The soccer fields at Anacostia Park are usually filled with players from other parts of town; many are recent immigrants. The same could be said of D.C. United fans who would visit Poplar Point for the club’s 20 or so yearly home games.
Pannell suspects the opposition to the stadium may have more to do with who plays and watches the game than with fears of some big-business rip-off. “Even black people can be xenophobic,” he says.
BOWERS KNEES MENDELSON
At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson’s uncanny political luck may be running out.
One of his challengers—housing activist David Bowers—has pulled up lame. In a statement better suited for an NFL news brief, Bowers says a knee injury will keep him on the sidelines during the 2006 election. Bowers was planning an energetic, door-to-door bid modeled on At-Large Councilmember Kwame Brown’s winning effort in 2004, but that was before tearing his anterior cruciate ligament, requiring a “rigorous and prolonged period of physical therapy.” He pulled the plug after consulting with campaign training staff.
At first glance, losing a young, charismatic challenger like Bowers for the season might seem like good news for Mendelson. In reality, Bowers’ bad break is the incumbent’s worst political nightmare.
Mendelson’s 2006 re-election bid was shaping up nicely for a candidate who owes his seat to big margins of victory in overwhelmingly white Northwest Washington. Two energetic African-American candidates—Bowers and attorney A. Scott Bolden—looked poised to cancel each other out. The conventional political wisdom had Bowers and the well-funded, hardworking Bolden dividing the votes in heavily African-American wards where Mendelson is weak.
Mendelson has had an almost unbelievable string of election-season good fortune. He was elected in 1998 with 17 percent of the vote in a field of 10 candidates—including the last-minute entry of Washington Post–backed and business-friendly Beverly Wilbourn. Three other candidates got 14 percent. In 2002, Mendelson squared off against Wilbourn and three other African-American candidates. He won handily, drawing the bulk of his support from his Northwest D.C. base.
Bolden is now in the one-on-one race he was hoping for. “I’ve always believed [Mendelson] was the only opponent,” Bolden says. “If we are well-run, well-spoken, well-organized, and well-funded, then we ought to be in good shape no matter who is the candidate.”
Mendelson was ho-hum about the news of Bowers’ misfortune. He says luck played no role in his previous election victories. And he discounts the notion that race will be the primary determining factor in the 2006 contest. “That issue was played in 2002. I think it’s unfortunate that some people judge based on race, but in the end, [the election] will come down to issues,” he says. “I’m confident as long as I take the election seriously and remind voters of what I’ve done—which I will—I will win.”
With about 10 months until primary day, the opportunity for some more Mendelson luck is still alive. With Bowers out of the race, others may be tempted to jump in. And the incumbent isn’t above engaging in some wishful thinking: “Frankly, I think there will be others getting into the race next year,” Mendelson says.
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