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Going Against The Percentages
S.L. Price
March 31, 2008
YOU WANT to keep thinking of Washington, D.C., as a gridlocked, do-nothing town? Go ahead. Try to ignore the fact that, this Sunday, less than two years after breaking ground, the Washington Nationals will open their season in a new, 41,222-seat ballpark. Just try resisting the modernist gem that's inspiring near-universal oohs for its green sensibility and piquant touches. Cherry trees dot the outfield concourse, timed to blossom on Opening Day. The Capitol dome hovers beyond leftfield, and the Nats' oval clubhouse pays homage to a certain White House office. President Bush is scheduled to throw out the first pitch. It's all going to feel so good.
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March 31, 2008

Going Against The Percentages

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YOU WANT to keep thinking of Washington, D.C., as a gridlocked, do-nothing town? Go ahead. Try to ignore the fact that, this Sunday, less than two years after breaking ground, the Washington Nationals will open their season in a new, 41,222-seat ballpark. Just try resisting the modernist gem that's inspiring near-universal oohs for its green sensibility and piquant touches. Cherry trees dot the outfield concourse, timed to blossom on Opening Day. The Capitol dome hovers beyond leftfield, and the Nats' oval clubhouse pays homage to a certain White House office. President Bush is scheduled to throw out the first pitch. It's all going to feel so good.

Yes, commissioner Bud Selig will be smiling that night, and why not? In 2004, when baseball still owned the franchise after rescuing it from Montreal, MLB negotiated an alltime sweetheart deal. Then-mayor Anthony Williams and the city council agreed to publicly finance a new stadium—now at $674 million and counting—even though it was widely known that baseball wanted the team in Washington. At a time when the civic burden for stadium construction was usually between 60% and 70%, D.C. agreed to pick up a whopping 97% of the tab.

Billionaire Ted Lerner will be beaming too, having purchased the franchise from MLB in 2006 for $450 million. Although he has spent "tens of millions more" in upgrades to Nationals Park, according to team president Stan Kasten, Lerner was obligated to pay only $20 million toward original construction costs. Under the terms of his 30-year lease he will control all but 12 dates at the park annually, in season and out, and rake in every dime from tickets, parking, concessions and signage.

And D.C.'s new go-go mayor, Adrian Fenty, will have a grin as well, though it may look mighty forced. He can take credit for opening the ballpark on time, but as a councilman he was a vociferous opponent of the deal, calling it "horrible." Still, the council approved the construction—funding it with taxes on stadium revenues, nonresidential utilities and businesses with gross receipts of more than $5 million—in the hope that the ballpark would revive the blighted Anacostia neighborhood the way the Verizon Center, built in 1997, spurred development in Chinatown. Although Fenty, as mayor, was in full booster mode last week, he couldn't make completely nice. "I do think it was a bad deal," he said.

Me? I'm a sucker for a new ballpark. Roll out some grass and dirt and throw up a few brick walls, add a few chaw-cheeked guys, and I'm there. When I first saw the Nationals' massive new scoreboard, or that cool hydrotherapy room for the players? I felt like a 12-year-old boy cut loose at The Sharper Image. Big gadgets! Woo-hoo!

But as a District resident for eight years I'm not woo-hooing. Ballpark opponents invariably cite public schools and libraries as a more appropriate target for public dollars—they were at the top of councilman Fenty's list—and in no city does that argument resonate louder. The nation's capital has 37% adult illiteracy and a high school graduation rate of 59%; only 9% of D.C. public school students go on to graduate from college within five years.

Last week I walked through Anacostia High, a five-minute drive from Nationals Park, where the walls are peeling and garbage litters the halls. I drove past the Anacostia Library, empty and surrounded by a cyclone fence. Like three other branch libraries in the city, it has been closed since 2004; permanent replacements aren't due before 2010. For those scoring at home, that will be three times longer than it took to build the ballpark. "To invest $600 million there and say it's the best way to spark economic development seems ludicrous," says Ed Lazere, director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. "I'm excited the city has a baseball team. But it makes me bitter that it's costing so much [money] that could've been used for more important things."

You want to argue? Good luck. By the time I got to the ballpark for its first game, between George Washington and Saint Joseph's last Saturday, it was hard to rhapsodize about the city's shiny new monument. I kept thinking of my kids, trotting to their overcrowded D.C. school next to a vacant lot where the library used to be. Only one notion kept me afloat: the power of shame. After all, the D.C. library system's construction chief, Jeff Bonvechio, said that citizen outrage over the ballpark had forced the politicians to triple his budget. And Lazere insisted that the District's 2005 decision to embark on a 10-year, $1 billion program to repair school infrastructure "only came about because of the guilt over the baseball stadium."

A deal so bad it might do some good? Flimsy, I know. But we suckers have been known to fall for less.

TALK BACK
If you have a comment on Nationals Park or stadium financing, send it to PointAfter@si.timeinc.com.

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