Just Say No to Obscene D.C. Baseball Stadium Subsidies

Oh, the audacity! Linda Cropp, the swing vote on the DC City Council, managed to convince a majority of the council that Major League Baseball should not be invited into Washington D.C. unless private funding can be found for half of the cost of the new proposed stadium along the Anacostia River. Rather than have D.C. taxpayers foot virtually the entire cost of a new stadium (conservatively estimated at $440 million dollars, and which could be as high as $614 million according to a Washington Post analysis) Cropp had the guts and good sense to insist that D.C. taxpayers should not be entirely liable for the cost of the stadium. From Wednesday’s Washington Post:

Yesterday, Major League Baseball said it would immediately put all Washington Nationals business and promotional activities on hold and, upon request, refund deposits on season tickets. It seems unlikely that the Montreal Expos will become the Washington Nationals in perpetuity without an agreement to pay for a new stadium.

Which, as Cropp makes clear, would be unfortunate, but perhaps necessary. Someone has to be responsible for the District’s treasury, she says. Someone has to say no if the deal’s a bad one.

Cropp is right. Somebody has to look at the District’s ledgers. If this subsidy is added to D.C.’s expenses something will have to give. D.C. doesn’t print its own money. It speaks highly of Cropp that she had not just the courage to speak up but to forcefully cast the swing vote to say this is an outrageously bad deal for District of Columbia taxpayers. Yes, it is.

First, it’s not like there isn’t already an existing stadium readily available. Robert F. Kennedy Stadium sits east of the Capitol and is unused for most of the year. Perhaps before building yet another stadium for another team the team should first demonstrate that it can attract the number of fans needed to support an expensive new stadium. Meanwhile, RFK stadium could do well with modest modifications.

But Major League Baseball is feeling pompous. Right now it is refusing to even consider amending its “deal” with D.C. even though, of course, the deal had always been subject to approval by the D.C. City Council. Never mind that other jurisdictions have attracted Major League Baseball without putting the entire burden on taxpayers.

And it’s not like the city of Washington D.C. is awash with extra money. It already has some of the highest taxes in the country, much of it due to the inadequate subsidy it receives from the federal government for its services. In addition D.C. is prohibited from enacting revenue enhancing measures like commuter taxes used by other large cities such as Philadelphia. So D.C. residents have to pay high taxes and this “deal” would likely mean even higher taxes. Sales taxes in D.C. are 5.75%. Gasoline is taxed at 20 cents a gallon. There is a $1 a pack tax on cigarettes. Income tax rates are also astronomical: 7.5% on income over $10,000 a year and a whopping 9.5% on income over $30,000 a year. (By comparison, in Virginia’s top rate is 5.75%.) No wonder the suburbs are booming and population is declining in D.C.

And who would attend most of these baseball games? It is unlikely that with a per capita income of $28,000 (1999) many residents of D.C. will be attending. It’s going to be tough to afford $50 per game baseball tickets. Most patrons will be from the wealthier suburbs, if they decide to bother with the hassle of commuting downtown in the first place.

Major League Baseball wants all the benefits of an active franchise with none of the costs and certainly none of the financial obligations. It’s time to just say no to such an arrogant organization. D.C. managed to attract professional hockey, basketball and football teams without having to build them special stadiums. The Wizards and the Capitals do fine in the MCI Center. The D.C. government paid only $50M for that $175M structure. The MCI Center seems to be in fine financial shape. And the Washington Redskins paid for their own stadium in suburban Maryland. Why should D.C. taxpayers now give carte blanc to Major League Baseball?

The fact is that Major League Baseball probably needs D.C. more than D.C. needs Major League Baseball. The demographics for the D.C. metropolitan area are a marketer’s dream. Aside from D.C. itself the surrounding area is highly educated and affluent. The federal government provides a solid financial base that means the area is likely to withstand economic downturns, as it has repeatedly demonstrated. We already have professional hockey, basketball and football. A well marketed team is much better positioned to thrive today than when the Washington Senators played. When the Senators left Washington it was more of a sleepy town than a major metropolitan area.

I would hope that Linda Cropp and the D.C. City Council will stand fast to Major League Baseball. If Major League Baseball decides to host elsewhere that is their privilege. Private money for half of the stadium could be found in time. If not we won’t really feel the loss of Major League Baseball. Baltimore is still within commuting range if we get the baseball itch and we have plenty of other professional sports locally to enjoy.

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