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Who needs a bigger win: Mayor Vince Gray or the Washington Redskins?
The Skins are on a four game skid, have no viable option at quarterback, and the odds of them winning the Super Bowl are currently 400 to 1.
But those problems pale next to the mayor’s. His most noteworthy accomplishment appears to be providing a spotlight and a stage for District jester Sulaimon Brown. A U.S. Attorney’s Office investigation into the mayor’s campaign shows no sign of ending soon. And on Gray’s signature platform issue, creating jobs, the mayor’s been mostly limited to holding news conferences touting the hiring of District employees for low-wage jobs at places like 7-Eleven, Safeway, and Ross.
If only Gray had a big play to turn things around. If only there was a way he could take everyone’s mind off of Brown and federal investigators. If only he could give District residents a big ol’ boost of civic pride.
Enter the Redskins, and the long-held dream that they might again one day have a physical connection to their namesake city.
The Skins are in the market for a new training facility, and Gray may have the perfect place for them: Reservation 13, home of the former D.C. General Hospital, the D.C. jail, and a homeless shelter. As a special bonus, it’s right next door to RFK Stadium, where the team played in the glory days. Along with a training facility, there’s talk of a Redskins museum, with a team hall of fame, to bring in fans and tourists year-round. A potential hotel has been mentioned as well. And maybe, just maybe, the training facility would lead to a new nearby stadium for the Skins sometime in the next decade after their lease in Landover runs out.
It could just be a match made in heaven: The Skins get fancy new digs, and the mayor gets a signature achievement that will outlive his early shortcomings. A recent poll by the Washington Post found that despite the team’s lack of success on the field, they’re still beloved, particularly by black residents.
But if this does turn out to be the perfect marriage, then the secrecy surrounding the mayor’s pursuit of this plan and the instant opposition that popped up after it became public are early indications that it’s going to be a long and complicated courtship.
* * *
For those of you who don’t follow themayor’s movements closely, Gray recently took a top secret trip down to Florida to tour the training facility of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He was joined by D.C. councilmembers Michael Brown and Jack Evans (who’s been loudly trying to cut a deal with the Redskins for a while).
Dubbed One Buc Plaza, the Tampa site is the crown jewel of the NFL training facilities, with three practice fields, a 10,000-square-foot weight room, and fancy spa-like showers. It opened in 2006 and cost $30 million, which was paid for by the team’s owner. (The previous training facility had leaky roofs and was infested with rats.)
Gray, Brown, and Evans left early on a Friday morning; the mayor was back that evening to see his alma mater Dunbar High School shut out Wilson High School, 37-0, during its homecoming game.
Gray clearly wanted the trip kept quiet. The mayor’s public schedule, which is sent in advance to reporters and posted on the city’s website, said the mayor spent the day doing “desk work.” The mayor’s private schedule, which is available to his staff, made no mention of the trip either.
But, as these things tend to do, the trip and the potential plan to put a training facility at Res 13 leaked quickly. By Tuesday, a column in the Washington Times had news of the mayor’s Florida sojourn.
It turned out Gray also traveled with Brig Owens, a developer and former standout defensive back for the Skins. Owens is said to have helped arrange the trip. The Redskins say they didn’t have anything to do with the jaunt; spokesman Tony Wyllie says the team is “exploring all our options” when it comes to building a new training facility, but that Owens isn’t working on their behalf.
Owens, who did not return calls seeking comment, is no stranger to the sometimes rough intersection between development and District politics. Twenty years ago he was part of a team, along with wide receiver Art Monk, that won a $216 million 20-year lease from the administration of Marion Barry to house District government offices, only to lose the contract when Sharon Pratt was elected. More recently, he’s part-owner of a plot of land that’s been allowed to lie fallow for two decades under questionable lease arraignments with the city, which was also first chronicled by the Times. The plot is the site of a proposed Walmart in Ward 6.
The mayor’s office handled the disclosure of the Florida trip and the potential plan for Res 13 about as poorly as John Beck handles the Redskins offense. It initially wouldn’t confirm the Times’ story, and then later apologized for not being more forthright.
“We didn’t want to get people’s hopes up,” says the mayor’s chief of staff, Chris Murphy. He stressed there are no concrete proposals on the table and the mayor is exploring his options.
The mayor also might have wanted to keep the trip secret to avoid criticism of his still-nascent plan.
Gray and other supporters of the facility have tried to tamp down any potential outcry over a proposed training facility by stressing that using public funds to build a training facility is a non-starter. (A day after the news of his trip to Florida broke, the mayor took to Twitter to say that the city can’t afford to build D.C. United a stadium to actually play games in, not just train. The soccer team is currently looking into moving to Baltimore if it can’t find a home in the D.C. area; United officials, who aren’t necessarily after public funding beyond infrastructure improvements, have said they hope to build a mixed-use facility that combines a stadium with retail, housing, and other uses.)
But no one has explained who would pay for the Redskins complex if District taxpayers wouldn’t. And even if there’s no public money spent building the facility, there’s an opportunity cost associated with the project. They aren’t making any more giant tracts of land ready for development, the old saying goes, and few are as desirable as a riverfront property next to a Metro stop and a few minutes from Capitol Hill.
Shortly after the news of the mayor’s plan went public, David Alpert, the city’s leading online smart growth evangelical, decried any effort to bring the team to the city. “Having any Redskins facilities or stadium anywhere inside the District would be harmful to its future,” wrote Alpert on his blog, Greater Greater Washington. Alpert argued that the land is too valuable to be used for a small number of athletes a few days a week.
Similar arguments were echoed by Post blogger Mike DeBonis; Ward 6 Councilmartyr Saint Tommy Wells, whose ward currently holds Res 13; and Councilmember David Catania, who was the council’s most vocal opponent of the publicly financed baseball stadium.
Wells says he’d like to see a mixed-use development on Res 13 that incorporates the Anacostia River and includes amenities like a grocery store and health club. Catania’s said he’s devoted to the “highest and best use” of city land.
But both elected officials said they’re willing to withhold judgment until they hear from the mayor what his plans are.
“I’ll listen to whatever the proposal is,” says Wells.
Catania notes that District officials tend to put on rose-colored glasses when it comes to money and sports-related projects. He says Nationals Park, a massive project that caused a bitter divide on the council, is a perfect example.
A 2004 projection from the Chief Financial Officer’s office predicted the stadium would only cost $486 million. (Only!) But the final cost of the project wound up being $691 million. The stadium hasn’t exactly paid its own way after the fact, either; about two-thirds of the money raised to pay the $32 million annual interest on the construction bonds comes in the form of a “baseball fee” assessed on any District-based business earning $5 million a year or more. Which means eating more Shake Shack burgers or Ben’s Chili Bowl half-smokes at the park next season won’t help pay the debt down any faster.
Then there’s the problem of attendance. A 2006 projection predicted that average attendance at the new stadium would be around 33,000 a game. That number has been wildly off, probably due in no small part to the Nats’ dismal performance. This year the team ranked 20th in the major leagues with an average home attendance of 24,877 a game, according to ESPN.
“I don’t mean to be sexist, but generally the champions of these boondoggles are men who are one way or another superfans or frustrated athletes,” says Catania. “It’s the little boy in these politicians that comes out when it’s time to build stadiums.”
Then again, even if the finances worked out properly, bringing the Skins to D.C. would depend on many factors outside the District’s control—including the whims and wants of the Redskins’ mercurial owner, Dan Snyder. Which, as anyone at Washington City Paper could tell you, are not always easy to predict.
One thing that would probably help get public opinion behind Gray’s plan, of course, would be for the team to start winning. If the Redskins had tried to build a new stadium immediately after they won their last Super Bowl, 20 years ago come January, instead of waiting a few years to leave RFK, they probably could have plopped some goal posts down right on Pennsylvania Avenue without anyone minding too much. These days, though, a Redskins Super Bowl looks about as likely as Vince Gray skating to an easy reelection.
File photo by Darrow Montgomery
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