Ever since Virginia lost its ABA basketball franchise in 1976, the state hasn’t had a big-league team, in any major sport, to call its own. The closest it gets is AAA baseball clubs in Richmond and Norfolk, which groom prospects for the Atlanta Braves and the New York Mets.
The problem is that the state’s money and power are concentrated in Northern Virginia, an overgrown suburb of Washington, D.C., a world-class city that hosts a complement of sports teams. Teams with a “Washington” appellation.
Within Virginia, Northern Virginia suffers from an acute identity crisis. It’s a job machine for the Washington area and a revenue generator for Richmond coffers. But it doesn’t get much love from D.C. residents, for whom it is merely a suburb with good shopping malls. Nor does it get the love from down-staters, for whom it might as well be Massachusetts.
Now comes baseball with the promise of a cultural anchor for Northern Virginia. Major League Baseball is trying to find a new home for the Montreal Expos, a team that plays to sparse crowds at its current home, Olympic Stadium. Along with D.C. and Portland, Ore., Virginia is lobbying the big leagues for the right to give shelter to the underappreciated Expos.
If baseball behaved rationally, the Expos would already be playing in the Washington area, the eighth-largest media market in America. Instead, Major League officials have the Expos playing some “home” games before less-than-capacity crowds in a 19,000-seat stadium in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and dropping hints that they may stay there.
The Puerto Rican strategy is designed to squeeze the best ballpark deal out of the governments bidding for the Expos. By playing games with the relocation, baseball officials are looking to extract every last concession out of the competitors. The keep-away tactics are also goading Northern Virginia officials into a fit of bad sportsmanship. They’re talking trash about D.C.
The sniping began in earnest in recent months, as delegations representing the three bidders made their pitches to baseball’s relocation committee. Fairfax state Delegate Vincent F. Callahan Jr. said, “People from Virginia are not going to go into D.C. in the evening.” Prospective team owner Bill Collins, chair of the Virginia Baseball Club, said that the corner of New York Avenue and North Capitol Street, the favored spot for a D.C. ballpark, was “not an urban site.” He described the neighborhood as a highway ramp to Baltimore.
And Gabe Paul Jr., executive director of the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority (VBSA), more recently played on officials’ inner-city fears by drawing this cold distinction between the baseball bids of D.C. and its largest suburb: “We’re not looking at this as an urban-redevelopment project. We’re looking at it as an economic-development project.”
D.C. officials refuse to insult Virginia. They’re confident of their chances. Baseball in a downtown stadium in the nation’s capital is a good product and an easy sell. The Virginians are wrong about the attractiveness of baseball in the District: Cars with Virginia plates already flood District night spots, and contending bidders would have trouble matching a close-up view of the illuminated Capitol dome as an urban center-field backdrop.
The Virginia folks, however, are right about one thing: Virginia, not D.C., should build a ballpark.
D.C. simply can’t afford taking a $275 million (or more) gamble on a stadium that might or might not produce promised economic benefits. Virginia, with its own budget squeeze, probably can’t afford a stadium, either. But that’s its problem, not ours. If Virginia wants baseball, it can have it, so long as it’s within a few Metro stops of D.C.
The goal here is to cater to the District baseball fan without draining the D.C. budget or subjecting the streets to traffic tie-ups and construction dust. But the means to that end isn’t nastiness; it’s called reciprocity.
For decades, Virginia has diverted D.C. income taxes to its own coffers, even as its citizens have ripped up our roads, mobbed our tourist sites, and gobbled up our neighborhood parking spaces, only to head back home and laugh at our legendary civic dysfunction. One good way to make amends: Build a stadium in nearby Arlington.
“If we didn’t have risk-takers, we wouldn’t have America, and we wouldn’t have American baseball,” says Rick Kowalick, president of the Virginians for Baseball Fan Club.
Channel that optimism, Virginia. Build a stadium. But don’t call it a reward for your relative wealth. Consider it penance, a punishment for billions in payments past due.
In April 2007, District residents will have a compelling reason to visit Pentagon City aside from Nordstrom, Godiva Chocolatier, and Wolfgang Puck. The escalator from the Metro station will bring them directly to a brick-paved plaza peopled by the larger-than-life bronzes of Walter Johnson and Josh Gibson. Across South Hayes Street, chartered coaches will be busing in fans from Winchester, Fredericksburg, and Charlottesville, and dumping them in front of the Ritz-Carlton. Ahead of them will stand a new ballpark, designed to look as if it had been built before baseball had mitts.
If they squint their eyes and look past the frilly iron work and faux-antique street lamps, these baseball fans will notice a few other changes to the neighborhood. Around the immediate perimeter of the ballpark, there will be a thin cordon of retail stores catering directly to the game-day crowds. Fans will buy fitted caps and signed bats at one of two souvenir stores operated by the home team. After the game, if they don’t have to wake up at 6:30 the next morning for their government jobs, they might drop in at the Bench or War Games, two new sports bars on South Eads Street.
D.C. fans will love baseball in Virginia. They will love it more than Virginians. For District residents, the trip to Arlington will be a seven-minute Metro glide from L’Enfant Plaza, while anyone driving in from Herndon, Manassas, or Woodbridge will be arriving sometime after the second inning. Unless, of course, I-66 has 14 lanes by then.
An Arlington stadium will be easier to get to for many D.C. residents than a new stadium next to RFK. They may choose to snack in Dupont Circle or Capitol Hill before heading for the game, instead of feeding on high-cost ballpark franks. Even better, excursions to Arlington will be guilt-free affairs. No worries about cost overruns or the depressing economic impact of a losing team. And no longer will it be the Redskins faithful littering Kingman Park with their empties. Instead, it will be baseball superfans pissing on Arlington flower beds.
The home team will do well some years, suck other years. D.C. fans will lose interest in the novelty of a team, and by 2013, they’ll just catch the games on cable, except in the odd season the team makes the playoffs.
There are a lot of unknowns about how much economic activity baseball will generate at Pentagon City, where two of the five prospective Virginia stadium sites are located. For one thing, the neighborhood doesn’t have much room to grow. Virginia officials, though, profess no concerns about such matters.
Recently, they carefully inflated their forecast of a new ballpark’s economic impact on the state. In 2000, a George Mason University study estimated that the total impact of a baseball team in Northern Virginia would amount to only $8.6 billion over the 30-year life of a stadium bond. But in 2003, after Major League Baseball released new projections of how much fans would be spending at games and how much owners would be spending to field teams, that figure rose to $11 billion.
Ever since Baltimore’s Oriole Park at Camden Yards opened, in 1992, there’s been no end to this kind of fantasy-peddling. Camden Yards was the giant sun-filled loft of baseball, with lots of exposed red brick, views of downtown, and enough authentic antique fixturessuch as the railroad warehouse beyond right fieldto give the rest of the throwback staging a whiff of history. The sellout streak lasted years.
Awed by Baltimore, more than a dozen other cities drafted their own old-style-stadium plans. Only one of these new parks, in San Francisco, was privately financed. In every other city, local leaders argued for taxpayer-financed stadiums that were something more than just sports venues; they were marketed as surefire downtown-rescue projects well worth a $300 million public outlay. The catalytic effects of new ballparks are by now so heralded that the movement has taken on the qualities of a suicide cult.
Some parks, though, haven’t kept the trend alive. They’ve drained municipal funds without giving back to the communityin terms of either hosting winning teams or generating much tax revenue. That’s what makes Virginia an ideal spot for the next baseball experiment.
In the last few years, new stadiums opened in Detroit, Milwaukee, and Pittsburgh that rigidly followed all the Baltimore-proven principles of old-is-new park construction. But winning architecture didn’t produce winning teams, and the crowds have yet to materialize.
Even the successes aren’t necessarily successful.
Cleveland’s Jacobs Field opened in 1994 to sellout crowds. The mere fact that 44,000 people were willing to venture downtown at night, to an area previously known as Cleveland’s red-light district, was a signal that baseball had saved the city. Nearby, the neglected Warehouse District sprang to life as a yuppie haven, with pricey renovated lofts and some of the region’s best restaurants. Condos rose up in the Industrial Valley, near where the river once famously caught fire.
But the Jake Effect is a myth. It didn’t create Cleveland’s downtown renaissance; it merely rode an already surging wave. With the help of the first excellent Indians squads in four decades, the sellouts merely symbolized all the things that had started happening years before. In 1991, when a baseball stadium was still on the drafting boards, the tallest building between New York and Chicago went up right in the middle of downtown. The year before, a block away, Cleveland’s historic transportation center became a shopping mall. And by the early ’90s, the Flats, the riverfront nightlife district, had already become one of the Midwest’s most popular tourist destinations.
Most of the new jobs created at the stadium are low-paying part-time gigs, and the Indians have taken to letting church groups work concession stands in exchange for a commission. The team’s cheapskate owner charges the most trivial expensesuch as office furnitureagainst his ballpark lease payments, frustrating stadium authority officials, who don’t get the rent they expected from the deal.
Around the stadium, baseball crowds support maybe a half-dozen bar and restaurant franchises. In 2001, the team’s sellout streak ended, and in 2002, Cleveland had its first losing season since 1993. This year, the Indians are still losing, and after 10 home games, average attendance is down 31 percent from the same point last year.
Pittsburgh, where a $216 million stadium widely deemed among baseball’s best made its debut in 2001, may never have Cleveland’s happy memories. Even this year’s promising club is drawing fewer fans than last year’s losers, who played before just the 22nd-largest crowds in baseball.
“Pittsburgh has an absolutely beautiful, wonderful ballpark,” says Bobby Goldwater, president of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission. “It’s one of the most intelligently designed, fan-friendly, revenue-generating [ballparks] I’ve ever seen. It’s terrific. On the other hand, there were certainly some disappointing scenarios. At some point, the honeymoon is over and you have to have a competitive team to be successful.”
Goldwater says that the advantages of being a large market will be D.C.’s insurance against failure. “You can’t take anything for granted,” he says, “but you start from a better position.”
When you don’t win, you lose crowds. Without the crowds, the city may see only a small return on its investment. The surest way to fill seats is to field a champion, but taxpayers don’t set the team payroll, fill the roster, or call the pitches. Nor can they do anything about the overall health of a sport whose economics are wack and whose popularity is in perceptible decline.
“It’s not inconceivable there will be a small positive effect [of a new park], but it’s not the sort of thing you can count on,” says Andrew Zimbalist, the Smith College economist who has written extensively about the sports industry. “If you do it, it should be for social and cultural reasons, not economic.”
Earlier this year, Mayor Anthony A. Williams announced his goal of persuading 100,000 big spenders to move to D.C. Baseball is supposed to be a means of drawing them here.
Chris Bender, spokesperson for Eric Price, deputy mayor for planning and economic development, sees two constituencies moving to the District following construction of a ballpark: first, the baseball die-hards who will flock to D.C. for quality bleacher time and couldn’t care less about the Vuillard exhibition at the National Gallery of Art; and second, the voluptuaries hungry for infinite entertainment.
“We’re trying to make the city a breakfast buffet, where whatever you want is cooked for you,” says Bender.
A stadium in Arlington would accomplish much the same thingand save a couple of hundred million dollars in the bargain. Bender rejects the notion.
“A team in Virginia does nothing to help the District financially,” he says. “It just doesn’t. We have a fiscal imbalance, period. It has to be congressionally fixed. Until it is, we have to find new ways to increase our revenues.” Revenues, he says, would roll in from new economic development encouraged by the ballpark, mimicking what happened in D.C.’s once-shabby East End, where the Hotel Monaco, the District ChopHouse & Brewery, and luxury high-rises sprouted with the opening of the MCI Center.
D.C. is weighing three potential sites, none of which can match Pentagon City.
• New York Avenue: This is the site D.C. officials like best. A stadium here, estimated to cost about $422 million, would be adjacent to a new Red Line Metro station opening next year and would help extend downtown development to the northeast.
Why it doesn’t need baseball: Development is happening here already, thanks to the future Metro station and a little help from D.C. officials. The District used tax incentives to lure XM Satellite Radio here, and the headquarters of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is coming soon to a plot nearby. As Ed Lazere, director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, has pointed out, all park-generated revenue would be dedicated to paying construction bonds. If Virginia built a stadium, though, the New York Avenue site would eventually generate revenue for the general fund.
• M Street SE: Located near the Navy Yard Metro station, about a mile due south of the Capitol, this site represents the most expensive option, with a low-end price tag estimated at $426 million. The spot is near major federal employment centers, an excellent source of fans for nighttime baseball.
Why it doesn’t need baseball: As at New York Avenue, development is already happening here. It’s too close to Capitol Hill to remain a backwater. The D.C. Housing Authority justified the impending demolition of more than 700 units of public housing partly by pointing to the obvious attractions of the area; more than 1,500 new housing units are soon to come. Office buildings, meanwhile, are already being built near the Metro station.
•RFK Stadium: This is the econo-option, a proposed $342 million stadium adjacent to the existing RFK. D.C. officials have indicated that a revamp of the current facility, built in 1961, wouldn’t generate enough revenue.
Why it doesn’t need baseball: No one really wants baseball herenot possible ownership groups, not the city. Baseball at the RFK site would be too much like it used to be: a stand-alone facility surrounded by parking lots and the memories of losing Senators teams. As for development potential, does anyone really imagine high-rise condos next to the D.C. Jail?
Whereas Virginia’s financing plan has been made public, D.C. is withholding until next week the details of how it might pay for a ballpark. Officials say their negotiations with baseball officials have demanded secrecy. But they have indicated that the city would finance two-thirds of the cost. The team’s owners would make up the difference.
It was recently reported that to finance its share of the bill, D.C. would face debt service of about $27 million annually. Maybe two-thirds to three-quarters of this sum would come from park-generated revenue, such as taxes on tickets and concessions, and a proposed tax on the salaries of home-team ballplayers who don’t live in the District.
But even if a so-called jock-tax revision of the Home Rule Charter were approved by Congress, stadium revenue wouldn’t be enough. Price’s office also proposes imposing some form of gross-receipts tax on local businesses, as it did for the construction of the MCI Center. The D.C. Chamber of Commerce thinks baseball is good for business, wants it in the District, and supports such a tax.
Mayor Williams is currently battling the D.C. Council on spending cuts. Building a stadium while public-schools funding is at risk is conduct worthy of recall campaigns. The mayor masks his proposal with the promise that the city’s general fund would not be touched to finance a ballpark. But by merely putting the gross-receipts tax on the table, baseball boosters may already be diverting the broader revenue stream.
That’s because the business community has made it clear that its support for the stadium fee is conditional, as Lazere has said. It all depends on how the city closes its current budget gaps in the coming months. If D.C. increases franchise or parking taxes to avoid drastic cuts to core services, then the Chamber of Commerce may decide a baseball tax is one burden too many. “We cannot do it all,” warns D.C. Chamber President Barbara Lang.
In a city on a desperate hunt for new sources of revenue, a baseball tax is permanent leverage for the businesses, now and in any future budget disputes. Tax them for sports and make taxing them for anything else that much harder. Soak them enough and some are liable to migrate to Virginia.
It’s past time Virginia shouldered the burdens of being part of a world-class metropolis. Building a ballpark would be a good start.
Virginians sometimes forget that it’s not IKEA and cinema/draft houses that attract talent to the region. What makes the Washington area worthwhile is the District, with its museums, monuments, and secure government jobs, and all the imperial majesty that comes with being the capital city. But the federally created city that hosts all these goodiesthat paves the roads, pays the cops, and buys the firetrucksreceives no financial help from its neighbors.
Being the seat of power and a cultural showcase comes at a cost. What with all the federal installations, embassies, business associations, universities, churches, do-gooder groups, and other not-for-profit organizations, nearly half the property in town is tax-exempt.
Everyone in the region may benefit from the premiere services available at Children’s National Medical Center, but it’s D.C.’s police who patrol the neighborhood. Sixty percent of the beds for the area’s homeless are in D.C. At the Kennedy Center, the society matrons of McLean and Chevy Chase display their grace and good will, but as a revenue-generating tool, that prime piece of riverside real estate would better serve the city if it were Fashion City at Kennedy Centre. Let Shear Madness play in Rosslyn.
Suburbanites get all the payoff with none of the pain. Take the new downtown convention center. The District government has invested 17 years, countless administration man-hours, and some $834 million in a facility whose benefits are shared by Virginia and Maryland. Washington Convention Center officials estimate that more than half the $1.4 billion the facility generates for the local economy will go to the suburbs. “Is there spillover and compression, and when they’re really busy, do we benefit? No question,” says Roger Murphy, director of the Arlington Convention & Visitors Service. And who is more likely to benefit from the industry trade shows it hosts, Dulles Corridor tech firms or the National Geographic Society?
Odds are certain that if there’s a fire in an exhibition hall, a Virginia fire engine won’t respond. Odds are even that the building will be able to make up for its huge investment of taxpayer dollars.
Virginia does nothing to right this wrong. While other suburbs in the country help shoulder responsibility for their urban cores, Virginia’s cares end at the D.C. line. Numbers supplied by Brookings Institution think-tankers help to document Virginia’s civic debt to the District. Here are a few entries on the imbalance sheet:
•Commuter incursions: $480 million. Virginia salarymen drive into the District, chew up its roads, and flush its toilets. The District’s Home Rule Charter prohibits it from taxing all the free riders. The loss is devastating: Annually, Virginia takes in $480 million in income taxes from residents who earn their money in the District, and Maryland reaps $900 million. They only partially make up for it by shopping and eating lunch here, generating a paltry $40 million in sales tax revenue.
•Host services: $240 million. That’s how much it costs to provide such city services as police and fire protection to the Virginia jobs program known as the federal government. Thing is, the feds are living off the District dole, too. If the federal government were a respectable business and made widgets instead of regulations, it would be taxable to the tune of $200 million, according to city figures cited by Brookings.
•Subway unfare: Millions. Metro subsidizes cheap parking in Maryland and Virginia. Meanwhile, District residents pay much of the Metro budget: $266 per resident versus $109 per head for the region as a whole.
•Licensing fees: More millions. “Washington” Bike Center, “Washington” Gypsum Supply, and “Washington” Dulles International Airport are all in Virginia.
•Viewing privileges: Billions! Hotels in Rosslyn and Crystal City get freebie peeks of the beautiful D.C. skyline. We get views of planes landing at National.
Total guesstimated loss: $10 billion.
Old Dominion baseball honchos want “Virginia” in the team’s name. “After all, this is a Virginia team we’re talking about,” says the VBSA’s Paul. Call them the Squires, the Founders, the Slims, whateverjust put the team in Arlington.
The VBSA has narrowed the possible stadium location to five sites, three of them in Arlington. The two outliers are near Dulles, on the border of Loudoun and Fairfax Counties, and in Springfield, on former proving grounds at Fort Belvoir. Paul says these two siteswhich he charitably refers to as “semi-urban”would pull the team closer to the heart of the Virginia market, by which he means closer to places like Haymarket and Richmond. For D.C. baseball fans, the non-Arlington sites are sure deal-breakers.
Arlington is nearly perfect, and it offers better views of D.C. than any of the proposed sites in the District itself. The site physically closest to the District is just across the Roosevelt Bridge, at the base of the former USA Today building in Rosslyn. The purchase price of the apartment complex currently on the site, somewhere in the $200 million range, helps make this the $610 million luxury option. For District residents, the more important figure is the number of Metro stops separating Rosslyn and Metro Center: four.
The two remaining possibilities are more or less next to each other on land currently occupied by retail directly east of the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City. Virginia Baseball Club Chair Collins considers these the best sites. Whether Virginians spend $394 million and displace some warehouses or $434 million and buy out Costco makes no difference to D.C. fans. Either way, the stadium would be four Metro stops away from Gallery Place.
Distance-wise, Arlington might as well be part of D.C. Until Arlington County’s retrocession in 1847, it was. Since then, though, the localities’ histories have diverged. Although Paul calls Arlington “classic urban,” it looks and feels like a suburbtidy, with malls and landscaped office parks. Aesthetically, it doesn’t fully conform to baseball’s urban ideal. But it will do.
Maybe, come 2007 or so, District residents will have the privilege of paying top dollar for baseball tickets at Lockheed Martin Park at Pentagon City. But no matter how much D.C. visitors spend, it will be coming at an invisible discount, far less than what Virginians will
be paying. Yes, Virginia, community pride
“You can either let us be known as Arlington, the county with the high-rises and the cemetery,” says Tom Brooke, co-chair of the Arlington Baseball Coalition, “or we can be something interesting and dynamic. You have to have something.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Lloyd Miller.