A deal to bring a new stadium for the Potomac Nationals to Woodbridge may not be dead and buried quite yet, but supporters and detractors alike are certainly throwing dirt on its grave.
Stadium boosters like Prince William Board of County Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart have declared the proposed $35-million project “pretty close to dead” after team owner Art Silber pulled the matter from the board’s consideration ahead of a planned vote July 18.
The deal’s opponents — like Supervisors Pete Candland, R-Gainesville, and Jeanine Lawson, R-Brentsville — are similarly pessimistic on its prospects, with both declaring the arrangement definitively “dead.” Silber himself says he’s putting his focus on the “overwhelming” number of inquiries he’s received from other localities interested in luring the P-Nats away from Prince William rather than continuing the negotiations.
Supervisor Frank Principi, D-Woodbridge, seems to be the lone voice of optimism on the subject, asserting that the deal is “by no means dead” and pledging to continue the negotiations to bring the new stadium to a site near Stonebridge at Potomac Town Center. But the complex deal, more than a year in the making, now seems seriously imperiled in the very week that supervisors were originally set to lend it their final approval.
“It’s not implausible where some new scenario emerges to talk about a new stadium deal, but Art has told us, ‘It’s this deal or no deal,’” said Supervisor Marty Nohe, R-Coles, who was largely undecided on the deal’s merits. “But if there were just fine details left to go over, then we could’ve discussed them at our July 18 meeting. But the gap between us was so big, we couldn’t. And if things are at that level of urgency, what’s the point of continuing the discussion?”
Silber says the team hasn’t been in contact with anyone from the county since removing the matter from the board’s July 18 agenda, though he says the team is “always willing to talk, but certainly not on the basis of what was proposed to us previously.”
Under the original terms of the deal, the county would sell bonds through its Industrial Development Authority to raise the $35 million needed to build the stadium. The team would then pay the county back over the course of a 30-year lease, to the tune of about $2.7 million each year.
Silber remains reluctant to discuss what changes to the deal prompted him to break off negotiations with the county, but he believes the arrangement would have put the team “at great risk” financially.
“Any reasonable businessman would agree it would be financial suicide for any business to sign an agreement like that,” Silber said. “Our family has been nurturing this business for years, and we’re not about to do something that would be financially injurious to it.”
Principi suspects that one of the touchier spots of the negotiations was the county’s refusal to include any “rate protection” for the team’s annual payment on the IDA bonds, meaning there was no guarantee that the team would not have to pay more than the projected $2.7 million to the county each year.
“Maybe there’s a creative way to address these issues, and if we get them resolved, I think the likelihood of this passing increases,” Principi said. “Let’s not throw away a year’s worth of work on this.”
But Candland believes there were more deep-seated issues at play. He notes that Silber once boasted that he’d cut a multimillion dollar check to get the project off the ground, but he laments that the P-Nats “are not putting a dime into this deal” as it’s currently constructed.
“I find it remarkable that this would be ‘financial suicide’ for him, when he has not pledged any cash investment prior to the first pitch being thrown,” Lawson said.
Candland added that some supervisors had grave concerns about who would own the plot of land the stadium would be built on.
Originally the land’s owner — the JBG Cos. — would simply lease the land to the county for 30 years, with six five-year renewal options built into the contract. Yet Candland said supervisors chafed at JBG’s proposal that the county buy the land for $10 million, a far cry from the $1.5 million the company paid for the property in 2015.
Yet, fundamentally, Candland believes the underlying structure of the deal doomed the negotiations. He and Lawson joined Supervisor Ruth Anderson, R-Occoquan, in harboring deep skepticism about the team’s ability to pay its annual county bill, and Candland says he never saw any financial evidence from the P-Nats to convince him otherwise.
“Taxpayers would take on all the risk, while the team takes all the profits,” Candland said.
But Stewart charges that the aforementioned trio of detractors simply opposes “any investment on the eastern side of the county,” while Silber sees politics at play in the whole debate.
“The issue never was the ballpark, the issue for these people was something to be able to get up and create sound bites about,” Silber said. “Their concern wasn’t the people, their concern was soundbites, and that’s unfortunate.”
Yet the deal opponents forcefully push back against those claims, asserting that they only ever had the best interest of county taxpayers at heart.
“If he thinks three of us are killing this deal based on sound bites, then he can get his five votes to pass this elsewhere,” Lawson said. “He hasn’t been able to do that, clearly. I’m sure he knows how to count to five.”
Indeed, even stadium supporters like Principi believe Silber never convinced a majority of the eight-member board to back the deal — Candland even feels Silber knew he didn’t have the votes and pulled the arrangement from the board’s consideration to avoid embarrassment.
But Silber believes the team has garnered enough interest from outside the county that he can now turn his attention away from reviving a deal in Prince William. He would not comment on exactly which localities have reached out to him so far but confirmed that several are in Northern Virginia.
“Right now, we’re setting up our first series of meetings with representatives from different places and locations,” Silber said. “What’s clear is that Northern Virginia is Northern Virginia, and it’s an incredibly dynamic environment for a team.”
Silber would certainly prefer to keep the team in the D.C. area — he wants the P-Nats to stay in his family for “generations” to come but plans to sell the team if he can’t keep it in the area, and he says he’s already heard from several potential suitors in North Carolina.
Alexandria Vice Mayor Justin Wilson says he would love to help Silber and the P-Nats stay local. After all, the P-Nats were the “Alexandria Dukes” from 1978 through 1983, and Wilson has asked city staff to examine the feasibility of bringing the team back to Alexandria.
“If there’s a way to bring the team back and restore that legacy, we certainly want to explore it,” Wilson said. “But, clearly, we’ll run into some of the same challenges Prince William County did. We certainly have unmet needs on the public infrastructure side, and we don’t want this to get in the way of all that.”
Should Silber successfully strike a new deal with Alexandria or any other locality, he says he’d be “devastated” to leave Prince William, the team’s home for more than three decades.
Nohe would be similarly disappointed, though he hopes the two sides could still “part as friends.”
“I think we’ve always understood that maybe the deal won’t happen,” Nohe said. “This result might have been inevitable. One way or another, the votes were not there.”