If Prince William County follows through and provides the financial backing for a new stadium for the Potomac Nationals, would the project prove to be an economic engine for the region or a debt disaster for taxpayers?
That’s the question county supervisors have been wrestling with for the better part of the last year, and supporters and skeptics of the proposed stadium deal took on some of the key questions surrounding the issue in a May 18 debate in Occoquan sponsored by the Prince William Committee of 100.
Supervisors voted in March to sign a preliminary “letter of intent” with the minor league baseball team, obligating the county to raise $35 million using bonds to build the new stadium near Stonebridge at Potomac Town Center in Woodbridge. The move would help the Single-A team meet a mandate from Minor League Baseball to leave aging Pfitzner Stadium by the end of 2018, and the team would be on the hook to pay back the county for that expense.
The county will also build a commuter parking garage at the site that will double as stadium parking on game days, and provide millions to prepare the land for construction and add any needed road improvements to the area.
But the deal has a variety of hurdles to clear before anything becomes final, and opponents argue that the financial arrangement would consume the county’s debt limit and leave taxpayers exposed should the team fail to make its rent or debt service payments.
“There’s no guarantee anywhere, written down, that protects the taxpayer,” said Supervisor Pete Candland, R-Gainesville, one of the deal’s fiercest critics. “I’d rather be on the hook for building schools or improving our roads.”
Yet supporters of the arrangement, like Supervisor Frank Principi, D-Woodbridge, believe a new stadium would be a huge economic boon for the eastern half of the county, and feel the deal has been thoroughly vetted in a way its opponents ignore.
“If you own a business in and around this area, you will see a bump in your bottom line,” Principi said. “This is going to generate nearly $5 million in tax revenue over the life of the lease, so it’s going to help us pay down our initial investment in this.”
He pledged that the county has done “everything humanly possible to mitigate risk to taxpayer,” including a requirement for a “bond validation” suit to let a judge study the soundness of the deal. But Candland questioned the wisdom of issuing those bonds, noting a report prepared by the consulting firm Brailsford & Dunleavy for the board suggested that ratings agencies would view debt incurred by the stadium project as the county’s, not the team’s.
Roger Snyder, who once served as the county’s planning director, also expressed skepticism that the team would actually be able to raise enough money to cover the roughly $2.7 million it would owe the county each year. He noted that the consultants also suggest that the P-Nats are substantially underestimating the cost of building a stadium large enough to support those costs.
The consultants estimate that the project would likely cost about $45.1 million instead of the $35 million the team proposed, based on other recently completed minor league ballparks.
Tom Sebastian — the senior vice president of development with the JBG Cos., which owns the property where the stadium would be built — was adamant that he could work with contractors to ensure the project costs no more than $35 million by putting a cap on the cost of the whole effort. However, Snyder was skeptical of that assertion.
“You just don’t ‘value engineer’ a $45 million stadium down to $35 million,” Snyder said.
Lani Silber Weiss, the team’s president and chief operations officer, also argued that Minor League Baseball has set up safeguards should the team ever have trouble paying the county back. She believes the league wouldn’t hesitate to step in and find a new owner if the P-Nats can’t come up with the cash, since Major League Baseball requires each minor league team to keep up operations so prospects can continue to take the field.
“My family would walk away from every penny of equity,” Weiss said. “We’d lose it all after years of owning the team.”
But Candland wanted some form of assurance from the league on that condition, since he hasn’t seen any yet.
“If this was such a sure thing, people should be lining up to sign agreements,” Candland said.
In all, Candland would rather see this question go to a ballot referendum to give county voters a say in the process. Supervisors initially rejected that suggestion on a 4-4 vote, but he plans to bring it back before the board on June 20.
Yet Principi feels the public “will have plenty of opportunities for input” on the project without a referendum, and Sebastian agreed that he’d rather see county lawmakers hand down the final decision.
“To expect a voter to read a sentence about this and make a decision, just doesn’t make sense,” Sebastian said.
Candland believes the referendum process would be a quick one, relative to the current deal on the table, but Weiss cautioned that Minor League Baseball will need to know “within the next few months” whether or not a new stadium is on the way. The team has a waiver to stay in Pfitzner through the end of 2018, but after that, Weiss said her family would be forced to sell.
“We’re not making threats about leaving, because we don’t want to leave,” Weiss said.
Principi stressed that losing the team would be a financial blow for the area, while building this new stadium would help create jobs and generate hundreds of millions of dollars in economic activity for Woodbridge.
“It’s a lot more than just a nice amenity,” Principi said.
But experts have long been skeptical of such lofty estimates of a stadium’s economic impact, a point Candland stressed repeatedly as he pledged his continued opposition to the project.
“As supervisors, we need to base our decisions on facts, not just hopes,” Candland said.