How Will DC Pay for Its Share of the United Stadium Deal?

As city officials celebrate their arrangement to build a brand-new soccer stadium, skeptics of the plan want to know where the money will be found.

By: Benjamin Freed

District officials and local soccer fans got every excited earlier this summer when DC Mayor Vince Gray and D.C. United introduced a plan to build a stadium for the team at Buzzard Point in Southwest. The $300 million plan, city and team officials have boasted since then, is to be split evenly between public and private financing, with the District's money paying for land acquisition and infrastructure improvements at the stadium site.

To many, the mere emergence of a public-private partnership on a major sports venue represented a vast improvement over the last time DC got a new stadium—Nationals Park, located a few blocks away. That stadium, while a nice place to see a baseball game, carried a $700 million price tag that was (and continues to be) footed by increases in local business income taxes and sales taxes on tickets, merchandise, and snacks sold there.

But DC's end of the United stadium deal is missing a similar payment plan, argues Ed Lazere, the executive director of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute. In a blog post, Lazere writes says that city officials have not proposed how to come up with the revenue needed to buy out the companies that currently own the land at Buzzard Point. The only money that will come into coffers is the future promise of entertainment dollars from the stadium and tax revenue from whatever mixed-use development would go up at the site of the Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center at 14th and U Sts., NW, which will be given to Akridge.

And that lack of specificity on how the stadium's land and infrastructure will be financed is why Lazere believes that the D.C. United park might actually be a bigger shaft to local taxpayers.

"For the soccer stadium, Mayor Gray proposes trading the Reeves Center and other public assets to get land and to cover costs for environmental remediation and new infrastructure," Lazere writes. "That may mean no cash would trade hands, but it certainly doesn’t mean that it would be cost-free."

Instead, Lazere continues that if DC sold off the Reeves Center for plum redevelopment but did not use the money to pay for a professional soccer stadium, it could better pay for programs such as school rebuilding and affordable housing.

A spokesman for DC City Administrator Allan Lew, who negotiated the stadium deal, was skeptical of Lazere's take but could not say on the record where the District's $150 million contribution will come from.

But skepticism about the stadium proposal does not appear to be simmering down at all. Besides think-tankers like Lazere, who was recently profiled by the Washington Post as the United stadium's fiercest critic, the plan is also being questioned by some of the city's elected officials. While Gray is cheering his administration's deal, one of the leading candidates for his job, DC Council member Muriel Bowser, has been quite skeptical.

"Obviously we love soccer, and we love D.C. United, but I want to hear more about what the deal entails,” she told the Post last month. “What’s more important is that the residents of the District of Columbia get a good deal.”

And many residents will also want to know how the deal, however good, will be paid for.