As expected, the D.C. city council finalized a Washington Nationals stadium lease yesterday, by the same 9-4 vote it approved it by last month. This now clears the way for the sale of the MLB-owned team to private owners, and for the construction of a $600-million-plus stadium near the Anacostia River.
The reaction in the media has mostly been one of relief – the Washington Post story this morning is headlined “At Long Last, a D.C. Stadium Deal” – but while lord knows I’ll be glad never to have to sit through watching another D.C. council hearing, there’s not much good news here for D.C. or for those concerned about the public cost of private stadium deals. The final deal caps the public cost at $611 million – $271 million more than the plan as it was first reported in September 2004; the team, meanwhile, will be on the hook for only $20 million in parking garage costs. And the Nationals will reap all revenues from the stadium, including parking, concessions, and naming-rights fees on the publicly owned stadium, while the city will collect only a few million dollars a year in rent that won’t be nearly enough to pay off the public costs. Coming after the St. Louis Cardinals‘ agreement to pay two-thirds of the cost of their new stadium, and amid talks for the New York Yankees and Mets to roughly go halfsies on their proposed new homes, the D.C. deal is a throwback to the bad old days of ’90s “you build the stadium, we get all the benefits” deals,” and seriously ups the ante for stadium negotiations involving teams like the A’s, Royals, and Marlins.
To their credit, even the councilmembers who voted for the deal sounded sheepish about what they’d just done. Council chair Linda Cropp declared: “I don’t think anyone is happy with this whole piece. But everyone has played a role in making it a little bit better”; during the council debate, Carol Schwartz had griped, “I feel stuck. And I don’t like being stuck,” and said she wished she could throw the stadium lease “into the ocean.” And Kwame Brown, one of three rookie councilmembers elected in 2004 on anti-stadium platforms – all of whom went on to vote for the final stadium deal – declaimed: “This is nothing we should put our chest in the air [about] and say we created the best deal for the residents of the District of Columbia. But we probably couldn’t have done any better. It was this or zero.” Of course, sometimes zero is still better than the alternative.