Councilmember credits new sports venues for D.C. not being like Detroit, which is lousy with new sports venues

Somewhere in the middle of this mess of a World Series media cycle — after the assistant GM berating female reporters scandal but before the booing of Donald Trump and flashing of Gerrit Cole — the New York Times ran a puff piece on Washington Nationals fans that came down to “86 years since a World Series, Baby Shark, our troubled times, blah blah blah.” But Pat Garofalo, in his Billionaire Boondoggle newsletter, noted one paragraph that stood out as exceptionally evidence-free:

When the ballpark opened in the Navy Yard neighborhood 11 years ago, the area was struggling to move past decades of drugs and violence. It was a wasteland of car repair shops, garbage truck parking lots and asphalt factories. But the ballpark led the way for restaurants, condos and hotels, and Audi Field, home of Major League Soccer’s D.C. United, down the street.

We’ve covered the Stadium Catalyst Fallacy in this space before: Look at a sports venue, look at development taking place around it, and declare “mission accomplished.” But when you have a sports facility being built in a neighborhood that is already ripe for development — which was absolutely the case in D.C., if only because there are few sites anywhere in the District that aren’t being eyed for development — then, as Garofalo notes, “We can’t know for sure what would have happened in the alternative universe in which the Nationals never came to D.C. and Nats Park was never built.”

Then Garofalo digs up another recent quote about the Nationals’ alleged economic windfall for D.C. that is even more bizarre:

“Where would we be without the arena, the convention center and hotel, the ballpark, Audi soccer stadium,” Evans asks and answers, “We’d be Detroit, a city still struggling in every respect.”

That’s D.C. city councilmember Jack Evans, the godfather of Nationals Park, in a recent Washington City Paper article about how the stadium deal “nearly fell apart.” (The article doesn’t really explain that bit, but if you want the fuller recap, it’s covered both in the later chapters of Field of Schemes and here on this site as well.) Notes Garofalo:

What a weird comparison for Evans to make: Detroit also has publicly-funded sports stadiums, as well as convention centers and hotels. The chief difference between the cities is that Detroit’s main industry — automaking — went bust, and D.C.’s — the business of government — didn’t. No soccer field or convention center changed that.

I would suggest that we all point and laugh at Jack Evans for being a doofus, but presumably everyone is already pointing and laughing at Evans’ ongoing ethics scandals, so to double down would be cruel, if fun.

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12 comments on “Councilmember credits new sports venues for D.C. not being like Detroit, which is lousy with new sports venues

  1. Neil,

    Don’t you miss the days when ballpark only cost $500M. Today they are $ 1 billion to start. The DC was bad but it could have been worse

    1. I remember people in Seattle screaming bloody murder when the pricetag for the Kingdome came in at $67 million when it was completed in 1976 because it was originally supposed to cost only $40 million. I’ve since read that if tax revenues the Kingdome generated had gone to service its bond debt as intended, instead of being diverted to other government projects, it would have paid for itself years ahead of schedule.

      Good thing the Kingdome was torn down so two new stadiums could replace it (at a combined public cost of $800 million).

      1. “I’ve since read that if tax revenues the Kingdome generated had gone to service its bond debt as intended, instead of being diverted to other government projects, it would have paid for itself years ahead of schedule.”

        Can you provide a source for that? It seems unlikely.

        1. It’s been so long ago. I don’t remember where, but I do recall it from a local source. I’ll try to find it for you. As ugly as it was, the Kingdome was very utilitarian and a LOT of events were held there.

          1. I looked it up: Both the original Kingdome construction bonds and the bonds for its roof repair in the 1990s were paid off by hotel/motel taxes, so none of it was from “tax revenues the dome created.”

          2. I’ll concede your point, Neil, because I couldn’t find the source of my comment, but I KNOW I read somewhere that taxes from Kingdome rent, parking, ticket sales and other sources would have paid the bonds early had King County NOT diverted much of that revenue to street repairs, libraries, et al….not that an argument like that would hold any water in a courtroom. The hotel/motel tax you speak of was enacted in the late 90’s (it also includes restaurants and car rentals) and indeed was used to pay the remaining Kingdome debt.

            I greatly dislike public money being used to build arenas or stadiums for privately-owned sports teams (had a great half-hour debate on radio with Damon Huard on this topic when he was doing PR work for Paul Allen’s First & Ten group when the Seahawks stadium was on the state ballot), but at least this one relies on discretionary consumer spending.

            Keep tilting at those windmills. The introduction to the late Jim Bouton’s terrific (and underrated) “Foul Ball” spells out what people who want limited public subsidization of sports facilities are up against.

  2. “…We can’t know for sure what would have happened in the alternative universe in which the Nationals never came to D.C. and Nats Park was never built…”

    That’s true. But there is one thing we know for certain: If the baseball and soccer facilities had not been built (at the cost of, what, $700m in public funds?) the authorities would either still have that money in the bank or would have spent it on something more beneficial to all residents (not just sports fans).

    Really, the only conclusion that can be drawn is that publicly funded sports stadia eat up taxpayer funding that could be used for more public purposes than building a palace(s) for a billionaire’s plaything to operate out of (generally rent free).

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