D.C. mayor proposes $55m Wizards practice arena, because city was out of other sports to subsidize

Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has scheduled a press conference today to announce her proposal for the construction of a brand-new sports facility in the District. Nope, not the NFL stadium she talked about last week. But wait, you ask: Don’t the Nationals and the Capitals and the Wizards and D.C. United all have new buildings either in place or under construction? What on earth is there left to build?

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser has reached a tentative deal to build a $56.3 million Wizards basketball practice facility and Mystics arena for majority team owner Ted Leonsis on the east campus of the former St. Elizabeths hospital in one of the poorest corners of the nation’s capital.

Yes, you read that right: a $56.3 million practice facility. Plus a home court for the WNBA’s Mystics, because apparently the team is giving up on ever again being able to sell more than 5,000 tickets a game, despite the league average attendance being over 7,000. (Yes, I’m sure lots of those tickets are freebies or heavily discounted, but still.) The money would come overwhelmingly from public pockets: $23 million from the city itself, plus $27 million from the city-funded Events D.C. tourism bureau, with Wizards owner Ted Leonsis chipping in a whole $5 million, plus another $10 million for unspecified “redevelopment and community philanthropic investments.”

Bowser’s administration says this will be a terrific use of public money, notes the Washington City Paper, because:

A press release about the new facility estimates that it will generate $90 million in tax revenues over 20 years, in part by hosting Mystics WNBA games and an estimated 90 non-basketball events a year.

Okay, so let’s get this straight: Having the Mystics sell fewer tickets at a new arena instead of more back at their old arena would generate more in tax revenues because … there’s such a pent-up demand for concert dates that the Verizon Center will be able to fill those former Mystics dates with lots of new revenue-earning events? While also slotting in another 90 new events at the new arena? All of which will be spending by people who never would have been in D.C. otherwise, because after all, it’s not a big tourist town.

Not to mention that at a 5.75% city sales tax rate, to provide $4.5 million a year in new tax revenues, this new practice facility — practice facility, keep reminding yourself that — would need to generate an additional $78 million a year in sales all by its lonesome. That seems pretty unlikely — though if it could be such a cash cow, you have to wonder why Leonsis can’t just build it with his own money instead of making the people of D.C. build it for him and then hope to earn it back through sales taxes. It’s not like he’d need to take out a loan, even.

If there’s any argument for handing $50 million in public money to one of the richest guys in town, I suppose it would be that this is supposed to “revitalize” a rundown section of Southeast D.C., because what business owner can resist the draw of selling their wares to 17 games a year worth of WNBA fans? There is a Metro stop nearby, so it’s always possible you’ll eventually see condos springing up in Anacostia, like you do in pretty much every other D.C. neighborhood with transit. Of course, whether condos — or easy access to WNBA games — is what poor neighborhoods really most need out of $50 million in public spending is another story, but hey, beggars can’t be choosers, right?

This whole mess still needs to go before the D.C. council, where it will no doubt be the subject of months of raucous debate before it gets approved at the last minute by councilmembers scrawling out an agreement in ballpoint pen on the council floor. Democracy!


4 comments on “D.C. mayor proposes $55m Wizards practice arena, because city was out of other sports to subsidize

  1. I think the $23 million is sunk already since it’s from the funds to rebuild the non-DHS part of St. E’s, but I have to wonder what Event’s DC is thinking, considering that once the United leave RFK, they’ll have a $7 million hole in their budget with nothing to fill it.

  2. I understand that “sports” are a major part of the Mayor’s “development strategy.” Isn’t that exciting?

    This might be a time or a place where no interference by any elected official is needed. If Anacostia is developing, so will St. Es, and likely with something that will actually produce income or sales tax for the city.

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