Throughout the election, the District’s mayoral candidates debated the details of a plan to subsidize a new soccer stadium for D.C. United at Buzzard Point. On Wednesday, the D.C. Council released a report on the costs and benefits of the deal. The price tag of the stadium — $286 million dollars — would make it the most expensive Major League Soccer stadium ever built. But it could also bring $109 million in economic benefits to the District. We explore the report and what it means for the future of the deal.

Guests

  • Jonathan O'Connell Reporter, The Washington Post
  • Tom Hunt Chief Operating Officer, D.C. United

Transcript

  • 12:06:39

    MS. JEN GOLBECKFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. I'm Jen Golbeck from the University of Maryland sitting in for Kojo. Later in the broadcast, D.C. voters say yes to legal marijuana. We look at what legalized pot will mean for District residents and those just across the border in Maryland and northern Virginia. But, first, another issue that sparked debate during this election season. Should the District subsidize a new soccer stadium for D.C. United?

  • 12:07:18

    MS. JEN GOLBECKYesterday, a report initiated by the D.C. Council brought new financial details to light, including this. The $286 million stadium would be the most expensive in the history of Major League Soccer. We look at the prospects for the deal under the new mayor. Joining me to discuss in studio is Jonathan O'Connell. He's a reporter with The Washington Post covering land use and development. It's good to have you here.

  • 12:07:41

    MR. JONATHAN O'CONNELLThanks, Jen.

  • 12:07:42

    GOLBECKAnd we'd like to hear from you, too. How do you feel about the city subsidizing a new soccer stadium for D.C. United? Give us a call at 1-800-433-8850, or send us an email to kojo@wamu.org. Jonathan, this report was deliberately held back by the council, released just a day after the election. What was the idea behind delaying its release?

  • 12:08:05

    O'CONNELLYou know, I haven't heard kind of a robust explanation for that. It was a disappointment because when the hearing began yesterday hardly anybody had had a chance to really read the report. And the questions as a result of that were, you know, pretty thin for a large part.

  • 12:08:20

    GOLBECKDo we know if the council had already seen it at that point?

  • 12:08:23

    O'CONNELLI've talked to a couple council members who had seen parts of it. I don't think hardly any -- none that I talked to had copies of it. So, as a result, a lot of people were still reading it when they showed up, and we didn't really have that -- and we're going to have a second hearing giving people a chance to having it -- have read more of it.

  • 12:08:38

    GOLBECKDo you think it would have made a difference if it had been released before the election?

  • 12:08:43

    O'CONNELLWell, not for Chairman Mendelson. I mean he won very, very easily. It's hard to picture it really mattering for him. You know, there's nothing in the report that was so jarring -- either for a stadium supporter or somebody who doesn't like the stadium idea -- that I think would have made some sort of, you know, ugly headline for a candidate, something like that. Which is why it was even more confusing to me that it didn't come out on a more timely manner.

  • 12:09:05

    GOLBECKAnd it was 400 pages, so it would have been hard for people to really make it through that if it had been released, say, a day or two earlier.

  • 12:09:11

    O'CONNELLYeah. I mean, I was racing through it yesterday before the hearing and I got through probably 50 pages before we actually sat down and they started taking questions. So I can't imagine, you know, members of the council got a whole lot further than I did.

  • 12:09:22

    GOLBECKThe report highlights a number of financial aspects of a potential deal. First, what about the total cost -- the priciest in history for a Major League Soccer stadium. Can you talk about the price tag and what it'll cost the District?

  • 12:09:35

    O'CONNELLSure. So, you know, the project has been envisioned as a $300 million development for quite a while. And the analysts said that's about right. They put it at $286.7 million. That would be the priciest in history for Major League Soccer but there's a couple of caveats to kind of consider there. One, a lot of the reason that it's so high is, A, it's new, and things that are newer cost more. It's not from five years ago or ten years ago.

  • 12:10:00

    GOLBECKRight.

  • 12:10:00

    O'CONNELLAnd, two, it is in Washington D.C., one of the biggest metropolitan areas. Land is very expensive here compared to, you know, Columbus, Ohio, or Georgia or somewhere else, and the land cost makes up a fair amount of the reason that it is the most expensive. But having said that, it's a very nice stadium in a very nice location, in that it is in Washington D.C. and near public transit.

  • 12:10:24

    GOLBECKRemind me of the outlines of the land swap that was part of this deal.

  • 12:10:28

    O'CONNELLSure. It's a complex kind of combination of deals that the city administrators put together. In order to (word?) the stadium footprint, it has land owned by the city, it has land owned by developer Akridge, and it has land owned by a couple of private property owners and Pepco, the utility. And the city has basically said, we will trade each of the private owners other land that we own or we'll pay you cash for your land if it's only a small amount. So for developer Akridge, they would get the Reeves Center, the municipal building on 14th and U. And Pepco would get a piece of land near Mount Vernon Square where they could move some of their facilities down the road.

  • 12:11:12

    O'CONNELLAnd there's a couple of cash considerations involved in those trades, but those are the main ones. And then the city administrator said, well, we will build a new municipal center in Ward 8 in Anacostia off of Good Hope Road. So really, that -- the totality of all those things means we're talking a lot more about just what would be happening at Buzzard Point, we're talking about what would happen on U Street, what would happen in Anacostia and what would happen in Mount Vernon Square to a degree also.

  • 12:11:36

    GOLBECKAnd there's new on the land-swap deal. You just posted an article about concessions from the developer, who'd get the Reeves Center site. Can you talk about that?

  • 12:11:44

    O'CONNELLSure, I mean, it's interesting. The Reeves Center has become kind of the most controversial part of all of this. I think there is support on the D.C. Council for helping United get a new stadium here. Just about everyone on the D.C. Council that I've talked to wants to keep the team here, doesn't want to see them leave the city and wants to help them do that. The question is whether they are willing to part with the Reeves Center in order to keep the team, in order to build the stadium. And a couple council members have already raised the possibility that they would like to see the deal progress in some way without the Reeves Center being a part of it.

  • 12:12:17

    O'CONNELLAnd no one has come up with a solution to that yet. But it -- I think people are asking more questions about it as we go. So the concessions that developer Akridge made was -- well, when we acquire the Reeves Center, we'll agree to certain rules when we rebuild there. You know, they are going to build a housing project there, around 525,000 square feet is what they're shooting for. And they've agreed to include 100,000 square feet or more of other uses -- office space or retail. They could bring, you know, daytime foot traffic to U Street, maybe keep the economy there during the daytime hours, you know, more supported.

  • 12:12:53

    GOLBECKWe'd like to hear from you, too. Do you think the economic benefits outweigh the costs of building sports stadiums? Give us a call at 1-800-433-8850. Muriel Bowser, now the mayor-elect, has said it's important to keep D.C. United in the city, but she was concerned from the beginning about this land-swap aspect that we've been discussing. And this report bears out her concerns. Can you talk about that?

  • 12:13:15

    O'CONNELLSure. So Muriel Bowser, or soon to be Mayor Bowser, has kind of consistently said two things about the stadium. One, she wants to have a stadium for the team. She wants the team to stay in the city. Two, she's concerned about whether the city is getting a good deal, particularly in regards to the Reeves Center. So I've -- again, I have not seen a solution to that yet. And she did not come to the hearing yesterday. But my guess is that -- and you know, and I don't want to put words in her mouth -- but my guess is that she will try to figure out a scenario, either where the city gets some sort of -- some more concessions on the Reeves Center or maybe a possibility, a way to take the Reeves Center out of the deal would be my guess.

  • 12:13:50

    GOLBECKAnd we've got a couple tweets coming in on this. Brian tweeted, asking if Muriel Bowser would be able to thwart the Reeves swap deal. And Nettie Boo tweeted to us and says he hopes they get the deal done.

  • 12:14:02

    O'CONNELLWell, I mean, I've heard from so many team supporters, in particular, about wanting to make sure that the team stays and wanting to have a soccer-specific stadium for the team. You know, RFK is -- it's a place of nostalgia for many people. But it's also -- obviously, there's pieces of concrete falling off of it and there's a raccoon out there.

  • 12:14:17

    GOLBECK(laugh)

  • 12:14:18

    O'CONNELLSo -- and it's too big for the team also. So, you know, having seen other MLS stadiums, I can understand why the team wants to have a new one.

  • 12:14:27

    GOLBECKWhat about the benefits of a new soccer stadium at Buzzard Point? What does the report say about that?

  • 12:14:32

    O'CONNELLSure. I mean, it definitely says that there will be more development sooner with a soccer stadium at Buzzard Point. There'd be greater economic activity. There will be jobs down there. The report suggests that if the soccer stadium is not build down there, it could be eight or ten years before anything really is built down there, instead of, you know, three or four years.

  • 12:14:51

    O'CONNELLSo if you are somebody in Southwest or you want to see Southwest sort of advance in terms of having more amenities, more housing, create a bit more economic benefits to the city, putting a soccer stadium in the middle certainly has a benefit. And, you know, the net economic, I guess, improvement to the city would be an estimated $109 million. And, you know, that's not counting the other economic benefits that would happen at the Reeves Center site or, you know, in Anacostia.

  • 12:15:22

    GOLBECKNow, I'd like to bring in Tom Hunt, joining us by phone. He's the chief operating officer for the D.C. United Major League Soccer team. Tom, it's great to have you here.

  • 12:15:30

    MR. TOM HUNTHey, thanks for having me. I appreciate it. Hi, Jonathan, how are you?

  • 12:15:32

    O'CONNELLHey, Tom.

  • 12:15:34

    GOLBECKYou're the chief operating officer, Tom. What's your take on the financial report released yesterday by the D.C. Council?

  • 12:15:40

    HUNTWell, for starters, you know, we'd like to thank, you know, Mayor-elect Bowser and Council Chair Mendelson for asking for the third-party study. You know, we certainly, you know, believe that the study demonstrates that the economic benefits, you know, clearly far outweigh the costs. You know, as a businessperson, you know, if you asked me if I was going to invest a certain amount of money and make $109 million in the process, you know, we think that's a very good deal.

  • 12:16:09

    HUNTAnd, you know, I certainly, you know, want to -- if we look at Council Member Evans' comments from yesterday, really the crux of the question and the reason for the consultant's report in the first place was to say, hey, if the city did this deal, would, you know, is it a good deal for the city? And, you know, we think that the report demonstrated that that's the case. So, you know, if you look at, you know, $2.6 billion of economic activity, if you look at 1,600 jobs being created -- and, as Jonathan referenced, the fact that it would be a catalyst by eight to ten years of development in an area, you know, which, you know, we think, you know, is a perfect place for a soccer-specific stadium.

  • 12:16:48

    HUNTAnd, you know, what that would do for the area in terms of a sports and entertainment district. We think it would just ratchet up the D.C.-ness of this -- of the district. And so we're very excited for it.

  • 12:16:58

    GOLBECKWhat do you think the prospects for a soccer stadium deal will be with Muriel Bowser as mayor? And particularly, do you think this report will add to concerns that she's expressed about the land swap?

  • 12:17:10

    HUNTAgain, we -- first of all, she has been unbelievably supportive of D.C. United. She certainly knows of the types of things that -- you know, we've been in this -- in the District for 20 years now. And we have been committed to this community. And, you know, certainly all of the community outreach efforts that we have done -- this isn't -- it wasn't a light switch that, you know, we turned on, you know, a year ago to try to help, you know, get a stadium. I mean this is something that she recognizes, as do all the other council members. And we think that's one of the reasons why there's so much support for D.C. United and ultimately the stadium.

  • 12:17:43

    HUNTSo, you know, we believe that the council -- that the study, you know, demonstrates that there is a great return on the investment. So, again, we're very excited about that and think that, you know, we're looking forward to working with the mayor-elect, Ms. Bowser, to get this thing done. And we think it's critical to get this done by the end of this year. And I think she recognizes that as well.

  • 12:18:05

    O'CONNELLTom, I'm just going to jump in with a quick question.

  • 12:18:06

    HUNTSure.

  • 12:18:07

    O'CONNELLSay, for instance, someone on the council did propose an alternative way to pay Akridge for their part of the land and the city's deal with the team remained completely intact and unchanged otherwise. What would the team's reaction to that be?

  • 12:18:20

    HUNTWell, I would say, we're laser-focused on getting a new stadium for our fans, for the team, for the community. And, you know, we think that the deal that is in front of the council right now is a good deal. We think that the consultant's report demonstrates that. But at the end of the day, our mission is to get a new stadium. And, you know, that, you know, whatever that looks like, we would be, you know, we would react to.

  • 12:18:48

    GOLBECKTom, what financial benefits do you feel a new soccer stadium would bring to the District in the Buzzard Point area? But I want to push you a little further on that, because if we look to the Nats Stadium as an example, the city's own tax figures for Nationals Stadium showed actual tax revenue from ticket sales, as an example, was like half of what was originally predicted. Do you think taxpayers are rightfully concerned about over-optimistic economic projections?

  • 12:19:16

    HUNTWell, I think all anyone has to do is look at Gallery Place and you look at the Verizon Center, and I think the estimates now are $8 billion of economic activity that are -- there are 152 restaurants within walking distance of Verizon Center and Gallery Place. You're starting to see that happen now with the Nats ball park. And certainly Buzzard Point needs that level -- needs this stadium to be the anchor there that's going to help be the catalyst for all of the, you know, the multipurpose, the multiuse, you know, stuff that would take place there.

  • 12:19:53

    GOLBECKI'd like to take a call now from Sharon in Washington, D.C. Sharon, you're on the air. Go ahead.

  • 12:19:59

    SHARONThank you very much. I feel like everybody's jumped on this bandwagon and is visually going away with music blaring. We have thousands of people in this city who are homeless, whose children disappear, who have no shelter in the winter. And we seem to forget all about them. I hear the city council even saying, oh ,we have to have this because I don't want to have to go to Baltimore.

  • 12:20:20

    SHARONI'm thinking, is this all we're concerned about as a city is just building more and more places to entertain and to have good business for all these people? What about the people who live here? I don't happen to be one of them, by the way. I'm lucky enough to be able to live in Northwest Washington. But I am concerned about my fellow man. I don't hear anybody talking about that...

  • 12:20:40

    GOLBECKLet me get Jonathan O'Connell's response to that.

  • 12:20:43

    O'CONNELLI get similar questions about that sort of thing all the time. There is nothing really that prevents the city from using its assets, including its real estate assets, to spent money on other more pressing needs. And, you know, homelessness is a critical one that every year it comes up when it gets cold out and we have to find a place for people. It's like we're not expecting winter to come or something. So it's a pressing need.

  • 12:21:05

    O'CONNELLAnd, you know, folks who are questioning the deal, like yourself, are wondering why aren't we -- you know, why don't we sell the Reeves Center and get -- use all the money to build homeless shelters across the city or to lower housing costs, that kind of thing. And the city of course has to find a mix between, you know, building its safety net and providing other services and investing other things that keep producing the tax revenue that we need to pay for those services.

  • 12:21:28

    O'CONNELLSo, you know, if -- you know, it's hard to argue against certain economic development initiatives that later produce far more money than we spent on them and they allow our budget to grow and our tax base to grow. So it's a hard balance.

  • 12:21:40

    GOLBECKAnd we got one more tweet from Bill who writes, "Please talk about other uses, U.S. national soccer teams, local college teams, entertainment." Tom, do you have thoughts on that?

  • 12:21:49

    HUNTOh, absolutely. I mean, I think in addition to just the events that D. C. United would play, we envision many friendly events with international teams, U.S. soccer, U.S. men's national team, lacrosse, collegiate soccer, high school sports, community events, concerts. We expect to program the facility, up to 50 events a year would be our target. So, yeah, absolutely. This is going to be a stadium with multiple uses, and obviously, you know, with D. C. United being, you know, the specific anchor tenant of course.

  • 12:22:23

    O'CONNELLAnd actually the report addresses that also they estimate a total of, I guess, at 36 total events a year including, as Tom said, D.C. United games, a playoff game or two, whatever -- however your guys are doing that year, plus international matches, concerts, etcetera. So 36 is what they put it at but, hey, get to 50, that'd be even better.

  • 12:22:43

    GOLBECKAnd this is an issue that a tweeter using the handle power-boater sent to us saying, "Nat Park and Verizon host almost 100 games per hear. D. C. United plays less than 20. It doesn't compare." But it sounds like filling in with these other events is something that can get more use out of the stadium.

  • 12:22:59

    HUNTYep.

  • 12:22:59

    O'CONNELLYeah, I mean, I don't know how -- Tom would've probably been to speak about your plans more, but it is -- its tough -- it's tough sledding also. I mean, the consultants suggest that they could get three concerts a year. And, you know, obviously the international matches are huge draws. I imagine those would sell out pretty easily. But it's hard to fill in -- I mean, even if you get to 36 you're at a tenth of the year. And I don't know if you have other plans, Tom, that you maybe can talk about.

  • 12:23:23

    HUNTWell, I mean, I think that we don't want to, you know, leave out the community events that would take place there that, you know, might not be ticketed events but, you know, there's going to be a variety of uses for, you know, the stadium on a year around basis. But, yeah, I mean, we are bullish that, yes, 36 we think is a conservative number. You know, we're talking about, you know, Georgetown needs a place to, you know, play soccer. Yeah, there's a lot of things that we're in the process of looking for.

  • 12:23:51

    GOLBECKOkay. Thanks. Let's take one last call from James in Washington, D. C. James, you're on the air. Go ahead.

  • 12:23:57

    JAMESHow you doing?

  • 12:23:59

    GOLBECKGood. How are you?

  • 12:24:00

    JAMESOkay. I'm not in favor of any stadiums in the city. Why are we doing those things that don't really benefit the city and we've got a football team that's in Maryland and we have all of this property that we're not totally utilized and to the benefit of the citizens in other states? And who pays for these things and what's the return on it? Because I don't think they've done a really -- a good impact study regarding the effects of doing this. And how does it put the city in a hole financially for supporting it? And then we don't even own it when it's done.

  • 12:24:34

    GOLBECKJames, thanks. Let me get the panelists response to this. We've touched on a lot of those issues, Jonathan, but do you want to respond with some high-level points?

  • 12:24:41

    O'CONNELLWell, James is certainly right that we have a lot of stadium discussions going on kind of all at the same time now. Not only do we have the Nats Park, you know, being only a few years old, but we have the United team wanting a stadium in order to stay in the city. We have discussions about Daniel Snyder wanting to bring his team back into the city and they only play eight home games, never mind 36 events.

  • 12:24:59

    O'CONNELLAnd then we have the Olympics which is coming up -- you know, the decision on who will get the 2024 Olympics is coming up very soon. (unintelligible) and a number of other business executives have -- are pushing very strongly to try to get the Olympics. And that will require a new Olympic stadium. It will require an auditorium. It will require an Olympic village. And, you know, there are lots of different assessments as to what economic advantages or disadvantages holding those events bring.

  • 12:25:25

    O'CONNELLThere are some new poll numbers out about hosting the Olympics. And, you know, there -- the city -- these are big questions for the city. How much of an entertainment sports destination do we want to be or do we want to build other things that are more -- or use our land for more things that just our residents use? It's a big question.

  • 12:25:42

    GOLBECKTom, I have one last question for you. We're running out of time, but D. C. United just lost their last match. Is there going to be another game after Saturday?

  • 12:25:51

    HUNTWell, we're extremely optimistic. We've got a resilient team. They're gritty. We know what's in front of us on Saturday. It's a 2:30 start, nationally televised. We expect a packed house here at RFK and we're real excited. It's an exciting time to be a soccer fan. So, yeah, we are expecting that we will -- you know, we have a great chance to get into the Eastern Conference finals but we've got to take care of business on Saturday.

  • 12:26:16

    HUNTSo, you know, it's an exciting time to be a soccer fan. I mean, we've had an unbelievable year this year and we think the momentum behind the stadium effort -- we feel very optimistic this is going to get done by the end of this year. And we know that -- the council members know it's critical to get a vote by the end of the year. So it's a great time to be a soccer fan. And we look forward to having a new stadium at Buzzard Point.

  • 12:26:37

    GOLBECKThanks to you both for joining us. Tom Hunt is the chief operating officer for D. C. United and Jonathan O'Connell is a reporter with the Washington Post. Thanks both for being here. I'm Jen Golbeck sitting in for Kojo and we'll be back after this short break.

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