Last week, Muriel Bowser headed to Congress Heights to reenact a scene that’s become pretty familiar to Washingtonians over the past decade—another mayor announcing another stadium deal.
This time, Bowser went to the podium with Wizards and Mystics owner Ted Leonsis to announce a $55 million deal to build a basketball practice facility and arena on the St. Elizabeths campus. Leonsis, whose teams get to use space in the new facility for just $15 million in rent and neighborhood philanthropy, looked like Wizards star John Wall had just sunk a buzzer beater.
“This is a BFD,” Bowser declared, doing her best Joe Biden impression. Signs around the press conference declared that the arena deal, which aims to bring 90 non-basketball events a year to Congress Heights, was “bigger than basketball.”
At the end of Leonsis’ speech, he handed Bowser a Wizards jersey; on the back was her name and the number 51—for the 51st state the District hopes to become, naturally. But by cutting the deal with Leonsis, Bowser has joined a far more exclusive team: District mayors who have gone big on stadium investments.
Bowser and rival Vince Gray didn’t agree on much during last year’s primary, but they both pushed through the D.C. United stadium at Buzzard Point. Bowser opposed Gray’s version of the deal, which swapped U Street’s Reeves Center property for Akridge’s Buzzard Point parcel. After she was able to take the Reeves Center out, though, she signed it. By the end of the month, the District is set to file for Akridge’s share of the land through eminent domain.
Before Bowser and Gray set D.C. United up at Buzzard Point, Bowser mentor Adrian Fenty tried unsuccessfully to get the team to Poplar Point. Fenty could be the model sports mayor: Once an opponent of the Nationals Park deal pitched by former Mayor Anthony Williams as a councilmember, he happily presided over its opening once in office (and scuffled with councilmembers over tickets to games).
For District mayors, stadiums provide an easy chance to inject business into an area—and create a looming reminder of mayoral legacy along the way. In fact, there’s something about sports in the District that means that the mayor—or the people who hope to be mayor—has to like them.
Consider the fate of Nationals Park foe David Catania, whose independent run at the mayoralty last year was even more doomed after he started catching criticisms from foes that he had never been to the stadium. Catania, who nursed his grievance over the stadium’s public financing so much that he kept a model of the stadium in his Council office, finally had to relent. He tweeted his visit to the park, decked out in red.
The Wizards package now means that Bowser is the rare mayor with two stadium deals under her belt, counting the D.C. United stadium. Before her term is up, though, Bowser aims to outdo all of her predecessors and add a whopping third stadium.
That’s because Bowser’s administration has been courting Pigskins owner Dan Snyder to move his NFL team to the District, with its lease in Landover up in 12 years. While Bowser’s staff have courted their counterparts on the team with meetings and tickets to Nationals games, the deal has been complicated by Bowser’s on-and-off position on whether the team name is offensive.
The odds on the Pigskins coming back to the District are long. Still, all of the mayoral stadium politicking has won over at least one fellow pol: Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, a stadium booster so reliable that he sprung into action earlier this year when Nationals Park’s basement flooded. Despite running against Bowser in the Democratic primary last year, Evans is a big fan of the Wizards practice facility deal, being one of three councilmembers who came to the announcement last week.
“She’s been good to work with,” Evans says.
Evans isn’t the only councilmember who, like Bowser, wants to see the Mystics arena in Ward 8. While then-Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham made noise about what would replace the Reeves Center in the D.C. United swap, Ward 8 Councilmember and Bowser ally LaRuby May is on board with the basketball arena plan. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, no easy vote for Bowser to win, told NBC4 the plan is “intriguing.”
It’s not clear when Bowser will send the deal to the Council—she declined to provide a timeline on the submission last week. Since the District’s $23 million comes out of money already appropriated for development at St. Elizabeths, the Council’s role in deciding how to spend the money could be limited.
The vague terms of the plan are keeping even frequent stadium critics out of the field for now. Ed Lazere, the boss of the lefty D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute think tank, is usually a reliable opponent of publicly financed stadiums. For now, though, Lazere declined to comment to LL on the proposal.
This lack of opposition to Bowser’s plan comes despite some pretty ugly figures for the city’s contribution to the arena-slash-practice facility. The District will put in $23 million, while Events D.C., the quasi-public agency funded by taxes, will operate the facility and pay $27 million. Leonsis, meanwhile, will put in $5 million in rent and $10 million in investments and charitable contributions over 20 years.
Asked if Leonsis was paying enough, Bowser insisted at her press conference that she had negotiated a good deal. The city projects $90 million in tax revenue over 20 years—a number that relies on competing with similarly sized venues like DAR Constitution Hall. To generate that $90 million, the new Mystics arena needs to host a whopping 90 non-basketball events a year, even as Leonsis himself acknowledges convincing patrons to get used to coming to Congress Heights will take years.
At least the Mystics games themselves will probably be packed. Curiously, the arena plans to seat only 5,000, while the 2014 average draw for the team that once hung much derided “Attendance Champion” banners from Verizon Center’s rafters was more than 8,000 a game.
So far, the Congress Heights activists that LL has talked to are wary but optimistic about the changes the new arena could bring to the area. Bowser says her administration will face the potential Chinatown-style displacement of current residents when the issue comes up.
For his part, Leonsis pointed out that the mostly empty 183-acre campus offers plenty of room for the kinds of restaurants and nightlife that line 7th Street NW next to Verizon Center for Wizards fans.
“We needed a game changer here at St. Elizabeths,” Bowser said of the planned facility. “We’ve heard a lot of what was going to happen at St. Elizabeths, we just haven’t seen it happen.”
There’s at least one neighborhood that isn’t looking for the kinds of sports-related “game changer” that Bowser is starting to specialize in, according to the results of a community meeting last week.
That would be Capitol Hill, which is facing the prospect of an empty RFK Stadium nearby after D.C. United decamps for Buzzard Point in 2017.
Accounts of the meeting relayed residents’ gripes with the idea of replacing the soccer team with the Pigskins at the site: traffic, acres and acres of parking lots instead of parks, and a stadium that sits empty for most of the year. A picture of the kind of community meeting butcher paper that usually features inoffensive community input-type solutions on it had one overwhelming message written on it: “NO NFL.”
Bowser claims to hear the complaints.
“The last thing you want to have as mayor is have all that sea of concrete and a vacant football stadium,” Bowser said during an appearance on WAMU’s Politics Hour on Friday.
Whether Bowser would let neighborhood park fans stand in the way of her being the mayor who wins back the D.C. area’s most visible sports franchise remains to be seen. But she might not have a say in it, either—the Department of the Interior, which has final say over the RFK Stadium site, has said the team can’t come back to the site until it changes its name. This decision, as so much else with the District, ultimately lies with the feds.
Even without the Pigskins, though, Bowser looks set to score two stadiums for the District (or one and half, if you count D.C. United at Buzzard Point as Gray’s idea). Presuming that she can get the Wizards deal through the Council, Bowser will have succeeded in getting that most coveted of mayoral goals in the District—a legacy that can be seen from a satellite.
Illustration by Lauren Heneghan