Tuesday, March 3, 2009

DCU Stadium Situation

I know this is a Huntsville Soccer blog, but as a person who grew up and had lived in the DC area for 30 plus years, I want to write a bit about the stadium situation of my old hometown club, DC United. Since 1996, DCU has been playing in Robert F Kennedy Stadium. It is a great place to watch soccer. The sight lines are great. It has a roof that keeps all of the sound in and the lower bowl seats around 20k. So, it's perfect for a typical MLS crowd of 17,000 or so, but can also be expanded into the upper decks for big matches to a capacity of about 56,000.

There is an extra benefit of playing at RFK that perhaps wasn't anticipated by the DCU suits. The stands on the East side of the field are on tracks and are not permanently locked down which allows them to "bounce". When the fan groups get excited and jump up and down, so do the stands themselves. I've been in the front sections of the stands when the resonance of the bouncing fans and the stands has been in sync perfectly, launching me a foot or two in the air. It's really cool.

DCU match at RFK

Getting back to the stadium situation… As cool as watching games are at RFK, DCU needs a new stadium in order to make money. As a season ticket holder from 1996 until I moved away to Huntsville in 2006 and a member of the great fan groups that they have , I've gone to probably a hundred or so games at RFK. I can say with no reservation; that place is a dump.

It was a dump when they moved in to it. After all, RFK was built in 1961. There was a reason that the Redskins built and moved to a new stadium 10 years ago. RFK is dark, dank and doesn't have any modern amenities in which DC United can use to turn a profit. The amenities got only slightly better when the Washington Nationals moved in for a few years before they moved into their new stadium. There's now a team store in the stadium, but there are no club seats, luxury boxes or other revenue generating features. On top of that, the team pays rent and only gets a slight cut of the game day revenues like parking and food.

Is it saying too much for a "major league" team to have a decent stadium?

Here's a little history lesson for those not familiar with the DCU stadium saga...

The plan for the DCU management from the start was to establish the team for a few years by playing in RFK and then concentrate on building a new home somewhere in DC. About 10 years ago DCU identified a potential site in DC that they believed would be ideal for the new stadium. There was a dilapidated riverfront park located in the poorest section of the city that had been neglected for years called Poplar Point. Not only would DCU build a stadium, but the DCU ownership would develop the area with sorely needed low and middle income housing and and also commercial space that would provide thousands of jobs to local minority owned businesses, all to the benefit of the neighborhood.

There were many hurdles that had to be overcome before DCU would be allowed to build at Poplar Point. Primarily, it was Federal land. It would literally take an act of congress to transition the land to the DC government to allow development of Poplar Point. Former Mayor Anthony William's administration were excited at the prospect of developing the land, but had their hands filled with the myriad of existing problems in DC, including attempting to attract a Major League Baseball team. So, DCU did the grunt work and greased the political wheels in the DC and the Federal governments to allow the land transfer to pass. That took a few years.

In the meantime, there was a protracted battle over the financing of a new stadium for the Nats. MLB officials bullied the DC government into footing the entire $600 million bill. This left a sour taste in mouths of many in DC government and citizenry. Adrian Fenty rode this wave of stadium resentment into the mayor's office. However, Fenty made a statement before kickoff of a DCU match that he would do whatever necessary to get a stadium built at Poplar Point for DC United. Hmm, we'll come back to that later.

The William's administration had a gentlemanly agreement with DCU in which DCU would pay for and build the stadium itself the development of Poplar Point in exchange for $300 million of road and sewer construction. This is infrastructure costs that would be required whomever develops the land. Well, after he was elected, Fenty didn't think this was a good deal and reneged on the agreement in favor of a development bidding process. This process did NOT include a stadium requirement! Hmm, why would he do that? Fenty claimed it would not be fiscally responsible for a government to build a stadium, even after the DC government had done just that for the Nats.

I understand, it is hard to justify building a stadium when you can't keep schools from falling down around students, but the DC government wasn't going to be paying for the building of the stadium. DC United was. The only costs that the government would be responsible for were infrastructure costs that would have to be paid regardless of who developed the land.

The development of Poplar Point eventually was awarded to the only bidder to include an option for the stadium. However, the deal has recently been voided due to disagreements between the DC government and the building contractor over time lines and costs. (Those costs wouldn't be infrastructure costs, would they?)

Conceptual Design of Poplar Point with DCU Stadium (left side of park).

In that deal, it was recently disclosed, the contractor was secretly forbidden by the Fenty administration to discuss the building of a stadium for DCU. This Fenty guy is a jerk, eh?

So, where does Poplar Point stand today? No developer, no stadium, no plan. Looks like the land will continue to be a decrepit eyesore and the citizens of that poor section of the city will no longer have a shot at the thousands of jobs the development would have created.

This makes Fenty about as big a villain of DC United fans as one could conceive. Silly soccer fan, never believe a politician's promises...

And now for the DC stadium situation today.

Since DCU had not been made welcome in DC, the neighboring Maryland county to the east, Prince George's County, has stepped in to work a deal for a stadium located 6 to 10 mile east of RFK. Over the past few months they have worked with the Maryland Stadium Authority to perform a study about whether it would be fiscally worth building a mid-sized stadium for DCU. The study's conclusion: A stadium would generate $300 million in the near term and $60-85 million annually once all stadium construction is completed. Take that Fenty!

So, DCU is in the process of selecting a site near a Metro station to build a world class 24,000 seat stadium . A bill has been introduced into the Maryland assembly to finance the stadium at no cost to taxpayers. The cost of the stadium will be paid entirely by revenue generated by the stadium and the rent that DC United will pay to the Maryland Stadium Authority. The arrangement will allow DCU to take advantage of the amenities built into the new stadium and generate a profit for the first time in it's existence.

Now, as you would expect in this cynical world we live in, not everyone is pleased with the move of a team called "DC" United moving to a location in Maryland. Many who live in the Virginia suburbs are not looking forward to making trip around the beltway and over the Potomac to the new stadium. As a person who has lived in Virginia, DC, and Maryland, I don't have much sympathy for those folks. Even though the new stadium location may be a few miles outside the DC border, the furthest potential location remains less than 9 miles away from RFK. As you can see in the map below we are not talking about great distances.

Map of DCU prospective stadium locations.

The real question now remains, will the state of Maryland see this opportunity as a chance to build a world class stadium that will literally attract soccer fans from all over the globe (and the money these fans are going to spend), or will the narrow minded politicians put on the stadium blinders and pooh-pooh another DCU effort to find a home?

If all goes well, DC United will open the 2012 season in a shiny new jewel of a stadium, and I say, it's about time.

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