Publicly, Potomac Nationals owner Art Silber has declared that he’s moving on from pursuing a deal for a new stadium in Prince William County — but behind closed doors, he’s still holding out hope that he can keep the minor league baseball team in Woodbridge.
In the frenetic run-up to a planned July 18 vote on the $35-million project, Silber pressed the Prince William Board of County Supervisors for more time to work on the deal. At-Large Chairman Corey Stewart obliged and pulled the matter from the board’s agenda, while Silber followed up with a news release proclaiming that negotiations with the county had stalled, forcing him to examine moving the team elsewhere.
In subsequent interviews, Silber has mused about a relocation elsewhere in Northern Virginia, or even a sale to a buyer out of state, citing “overwhelming” interest in the Washington Nationals’ Single-A affiliate. Yet Silber’s email correspondence with supervisors and county staff, released to InsideNoVa through a public records request, shows that he doesn’t believe the aborted July vote has killed the deal in Prince William just yet.
“We need to stop the vote next week,” Silber wrote in an email to P-Nats officials and Supervisor Frank Principi, D-Woodbridge, on July 12. “A press release indicating the deal is over should do that… and then possibly there may still be an opportunity to continue to try to make it happen.”
Stadium opponents — like Supervisors Ruth Anderson, R-Occoquan; Pete Candland, R-Gainesville; and Jeanine Lawson, R-Brentsville — have frequently suggested that Silber wanted to delay the board’s vote because he knew supervisors wouldn’t approve the deal, and he acknowledges as much in his July 12 message.
“I do not want the tea party people to have the political capital of saying they voted this down,” Silber wrote, in an apparent jab at Candland, Lawson and Anderson. When a consultant for the team pressed Silber for his estimate on the chance the deal would pass on July 18, his reply was simple: “None, but we wouldn’t sign it anyway.”
Indeed, documents and emails released to InsideNoVa through a series of public records requests show that the county and the team consistently clashed over several key points of the deal. The documents even show that the team hasn’t recorded much in the way of profits in recent years, making any deal all the more complicated.
But the emails also show that the P-Nats — in concert with the owner of the land where the stadium would be built, the JBG Cos. — spent plenty of time lobbying to find five votes on the Board of County Supervisors to approve the deal, with little success. That means that even if Silber continues to pursue a new stadium in Prince William, he’ll face an uphill battle in getting a deal approved.
Above all else, the emails show that Silber and JBG were singularly focused on earning the support of Supervisor Maureen Caddigan, R-Potomac. Though Caddigan originally voted to approve a preliminary “letter of intent” to move the stadium deal forward, she twice voted to send the full deal to a November ballot referendum — that proposal failed on a 4-4 tie on two separate occasions, in part due to Silber’s warnings that a referendum would kill the deal.
Accordingly, she became a key target for overtures from JBG and the Silber family.
By June 28, stadium backers had given up hope of ever convincing Anderson to support the project. Brendon Shaw, the director of government relations for the Prince William Chamber of Commerce, sent an email to Anderson touting the chamber’s recent endorsement of the stadium, but her response was less than enthusiastic.
“I have been waiting for some movement from JBG and Art Silber to make it more palatable for our taxpayers, but it seems things continue to get worse instead of better,” Anderson wrote to Shaw on June 28. “I seriously wish I could join in.”
Shaw forwarded the email chain along to Tom Sebastian, a JBG executive and a lead backer of bringing the stadium to a lot near his company’s Stonebridge at Potomac Town Center development. Sebastian then sent along Shaw’s message to Principi and several members of the Silber family on June 29, suggesting that “it would be a waste of time to further pursue Supervisor Anderson.”
“This means that Supervisor Caddigan’s support is critical,” Sebastian wrote.
Sebastian also poses a question to the group: “Any update on Tom Davis and his discussions with Caddigan?” The county didn’t include any response to that email in the correspondence released to InsideNoVa, and Sebastian didn’t respond to a request for comment on which “Tom Davis” he was referring to in that remark.
But former Congressman Tom Davis, R-11th District, seems a likely candidate for any such discussion, considering he once represented Prince William and focused on issues facing Major League Baseball in his time leading the House Oversight Committee.
Davis wrote in an email that he hadn’t spoken with Caddigan about the project, but he does “think the county will make a mistake in losing the team.” He didn’t answer multiple calls or emails seeking clarity on whether anyone with JBG, the team or the county asked him to get involved with the project.
Sebastian also pressed Shaw and the chamber to arrange a meeting with Caddigan. However, Shaw says he was never able to make that meeting happen, calling it a “shame to see this deal fall through.” Caddigan didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment on these machinations surrounding the stadium.
DEBT SERVICE HANG-UPS?
But even as Silber and JBG worked to win over a majority of the board, they still had to negotiate with county staff over what deal the board would even vote on.
For the most part, the preliminary terms of the deal supervisors approved in March weren’t in dispute — the county would issue $35 million in bonds through its Industrial Development Authority to build the stadium, and team would pay back that amount over the next 30 years. JBG would retain ownership of the land, and the team would also pay rent on the property — between “ground rent” and debt service on the bonds, the P-Nats were on the hook for a bill of about $2.7 million each year.
As several supervisors raised concerns about the team’s financial stability, the county also required the P-Nats to establish an account with one year’s worth of that payment held in reserve. But that provision attracted quite a bit of controversy, stadium documents show.
In a May 31 lease agreement drafted by county staff, the team would need to set aside that full reserve fund amount before it could play a single game in the new stadium, which the P-Nats estimated wouldn’t even occur until the 2019 or 2020 season. The team struck that requirement in several proposals, but the county repeatedly re-inserted it, including in the last document drawn up before Silber pushed for a delay of the July 18 vote.
Silber has often declined to discuss what terms of the deal inspired the impasse, but the documents also show that the team clashed with the county over the cost of its annual debt service expenses. In a July 7 draft, the team proposes capping debt service costs at $2.75 million each year, with attorneys writing that a “maximum amount must be stated” because Minor League Baseball “will not approve an open-ended obligation” for the team.
League spokesman Jeff Lantz wouldn’t comment on that claim, as the league’s lawyers have yet to review any proposed deal, but the county didn’t include any debt service limit in its final July 11 draft.
Part of the problem could be that the team will need a massive increase in profits to keep up a $2.7 million annual payment. In financial statements provided to the county and released through InsideNoVa’s records request, the P-Nats averaged an annual income of just under $8,500 over the last five fiscal years. That includes a loss of more than $81,200 in 2015, and a total profit of just $1,740 in 2014.
Through a spokeswoman, the team cites reports from consultants showing that a new stadium will result in a huge increase in revenue to help offset the numbers it’s managed in the aging Pfitzner Stadium over the last few years.
But Silber has repeatedly called the county’s proposals “financial suicide” for the team in the wake of his rejection of the deal.
As recently as June 22, he wrote an email to county staff praising the progress of the negotiations, but by July 6, Sebastian started emailing County Executive Christopher Martino to ask for more time.
He noted that on June 28 the two sides had agreed on a key change — the county would now buy the land from JBG outright at a $10 million price tag. Accordingly, Sebastian wanted more time to hammer out the details, and Silber followed up with an email to Stewart asking for a delay until the board’s Aug. 1 meeting.
But Principi’s motion to delay a vote until September at the board’s July 11 meeting failed overwhelmingly, and Silber’s tone sharpened by July 12.
“Sometimes things that make sense and are for the overall good just can’t happen,” Silber wrote.