The Washington Nationals ballpark at the Navy Yard still feels brand new, but the example set yesterday by their division rival Atlanta Braves shows that a stadium’s lifespan isn’t what it used to be.
The Braves yesterday announced plans to move to suburban Cobb County in 2017, leaving Turner Field in downtown Atlanta after just 20 seasons. Most baseball stadiums last much longer than that, but the Braves are getting the public to pay more than two-thirds of the cost of their next venue, and they also say a move to the suburbs puts them closer to the bulk of their fan base.
Ed Lazere, the executive director of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, says public stadium deals end up being more about placating team owners than actual economic development. He cautioned the District about the public financing of Nationals Park and is now doing the same about the city’s plan to pay for half the cost of building a soccer stadium for DC United. “There’s no proof it has been a catalyst for change,” Lazere says. “The value of investment in a stadium is getting a stadium and keeping a team.”
The Nationals, who moved in six years ago, are committed to play at their $693 million taxpayer-funded stadium through 2027. But as the Braves have shown, professional sports clubs aren’t obligated by goegraphy. Even though the Nationals play in Navy Yard, their fans, like the Braves’, are more suburban, with 60 percent coming from Northern Virginia.
Baseball stadiums are built to last several generations. (Visit Boston or Chicago's North Side for evidence.) Baltimore’s Camden Yards opened in 1992, and there are no signs that the Orioles intend to abandon the place after their current lease expires in 2022. The Braves’ move comes after the city of Atlanta told the team it would not pony up nearly as much as Cobb County, which earlier this year laid off teachers and cut days from the public school calendar in order to close a budget deficit. Turner Field was also built with mostly private money, making the Braves’ logic even more apparent.
“We know it’s not about economic development—it’s about cultural development,” Lazere says. “That’s not unimportant, but there are other priorities.”
The District at least followed Nationals Park with a 15-year, $3.5 billion school renovation project, but development next door to the baseball stadium has been extremely limited. Meanwhile, Cobb County plans the Braves’ stadium as the centerpiece of a new suburban hub of entertainment, retail, and tourism. Lazere doesn’t buy that vision either, based on the experience with Nationals Park. Most of the Navy Yard neighborhood’s new developments and amenities are clustered around the actual Navy Yard, not the stadium.
And if the Nationals decide to copy their rivals a few years from now and try to move closer to the center of their fan base, that could throw Washington into a costly—and rather premature—bidding war.