With a deal for a new stadium on hold, the Potomac Nationals are now hoping to stay in Pfitzner Stadium in Woodbridge through at least 2020.
The minor league baseball team is asking Prince William’s Board of County Supervisors to approve a new lease at Pfitzner at its Oct. 17 meeting, as the county’s current arrangement with the Washington Nationals’ Single-A affiliate is set to expire at the end of 2018. The county owns the 30-year-old stadium, but its worsening conditions prompted the P-Nats to aggressively pursue a replacement for the facility over the last few months.
Yet the team’s tentative agreement with the county to help backstop the construction of a new stadium fell apart in July, even as team owner Art Silber warned that he’d need a deal in place this summer or he’d be forced to consider moving the team out of Prince William. He has since started working to find financial support from the private sector to keep the team in the county, and the P-Nats now seem to be staying put in the short-term.
At-Large Chairman Corey Stewart, a Republican and one of the staunchest backers of a new stadium for the team, cautions that this move to extend the Pfitzner lease is merely a “formality.” But he also believes this extension could buy more time for all parties involved to somehow get a replacement facility built for the P-Nats.
“If we don’t renew this lease, the team would be forced out of the county, which nobody wants to do,” Stewart said in an interview. “There is another site for a stadium being looked at now, and we’re not prepared to give up on it...They may have to leave, but we’re going to try to exhaust every single option in the meantime.”
Silber confirmed that the effort to find a site for a new stadium is "ongoing" and his discussions with private entities that might finance it have been "very encouraging" so far. He wouldn't rule out the possibility of the team leaving the county, but he reiterated his desire to stay in Prince William.
"To give us opportunity to have these discussions, we still need to have a place to play ball," Silber said. "And we have a great desire to continue to do that in Prince William County."
But the chief question for the owner on the minds of stadium deal opponents is simple: what happened to this summer’s urgency?
Supervisor Pete Candland, R-Gainesville, repeatedly proposed sending any stadium deal to a November ballot referendum to let voters decide on its merits. But Silber, and even representatives with Minor League Baseball, said that the team would leave the county if supervisors delayed making a decision on the deal.
“They were just trying to create a crisis to get us to rush into a bad agreement,” Candland said. “This is what I said during the whole debate, and it’s playing out now. They’re just following the blueprint of other teams around the country that have done this.”
That being said, Candland says he would welcome a proposal from Silber that involved private banks and businesses financing the construction of a new stadium, so long as the P-Nats leave the “scare tactics” of this summer’s discussions aside.
Yet there are still major questions surrounding Minor League Baseball’s willingness to allow the P-Nats to continue to play in Pfitzner.
The league’s issued a series of waivers to the P-Nats to allow them to remain in Pfitzner, even though the stadium doesn’t meet MiLB’s standards for player or fan accommodations. The most recent waiver is set to expire after the 2018 season, so the team would need to ask the league for yet another extension to stay through the term of the new lease.
"We believe MiLB will extend our waiver to continue to play beyond 2018, because of the amount of effort the county and we put into trying to get a new ballpark done," Silber said. "They want to give us time to complete that process...because they realize that we put huge amount of effort and, frankly, a tremendous expenditure of funds into trying to make the project work."
MiLB spokesman Jeff Lantz says the P-Nats have yet to submit such a waiver request, and any consideration of it “would depend on what was included in their application for the waiver.”
But when MiLB president and CEO Pat O’Conner met with supervisors in June ahead of a vote on a ballot referendum, he was unequivocal; the league has reached “the end of the line” when it comes to granting the P-Nats waivers for Pfitzner.
“If there was an agreement, I would be inclined to grandfather in...Pfitzner if there was a new ballpark set to open,” O’Conner said. “Short of that, I’m not inclined to do it, because, no disrespect intended, this could go on in perpetuity. I can no longer continue to turn my back on what’s been a noncompliant facility if we have to start over.”
O’Conner warned supervisors not to vote in favor of a referendum at the time, as he also believed that “the clock will run out” on keeping the P-Nats before November arrived (and the measure ultimately failed on a 4-4 tie). He also cited the “history in this county” in his reluctance to let the team stay in Pfitzner, noting that Silber has been searching for a replacement for the stadium for decades now.
But the proposed lease renewal does note that “if a new stadium is built and ready for occupancy during the term of this lease, this lease will be terminated in its entirety,” leaving plenty of room for Silber to continue stadium negotiations in the meantime. Should he follow through on his threats to move the team out of Prince William, the lease stipulates that the P-Nats would have to reimburse the county for any utility expenses the team incurs leading up to the move.
Supervisors are set to hold a public hearing on the matter on Oct. 17 at 7:30 p.m., then vote on it afterward.