The Prince William Board of County Supervisors has turned down an attempt to have voters decide on financing plans for a new stadium for the Potomac Nationals, amid warnings from the team’s owners that they couldn’t afford to wait on a proposed ballot referendum.
A proposal from Supervisor Pete Candland, R-Gainesville, to put plans for a new, $35 million stadium on the Nov. 7 ballot failed on June 20 on a 4-4 tie. In a replay of an April vote on the referendum, Supervisors Ruth Anderson, R-Occoquan, Maureen Caddigan, R-Potomac, Pete Candland, R-Gainesville, and Jeanine Lawson, R-Brentsville, voted to support the ballot question.
Team owner Art Silber is now hoping to finalize a deal with the county in July, after hearing from Minor League Baseball executives that the Single-A team needs to quickly reach an agreement to replace Pfitzner Stadium or find a new owner.
Supervisors lent their preliminary blessing to the deal in March, agreeing to continue negotiations with the team and the JBG Cos., the owner of the land near Stonebridge at Potomac Town Center where the stadium would be built. The county wouldn’t be using taxpayer dollars to directly fund the stadium’s construction under the proposed deal — rather, the county would raise $35 million through Industrial Development Authority bonds to build the facility and the team would pay back that amount over the course of a 30-year lease.
Candland and the other backers of the referendum worry that the deal doesn’t contain any provision to protect the county, should the team fail to make its annual mortgage payments of roughly $2.7 million. But the deal’s skeptics couldn’t convince one additional supervisor to join their call for the referendum, clearing the way for negotiations to move ahead.
“The team has told us that they’re going to stop negotiating if we vote for a referendum, and I’ll believe them on that,” said Supervisor Marty Nohe, R-Coles. “But I’m not yet even convinced we’re going to have a deal. There’s too much distance between what this board wants and what JBG and the P-Nats want. There’s big legal issues yet to be addressed, and I have no interested in dragging this out until November if it’s not going to go well.”
In a joint statement, the Nationals and JBG say they’re “encouraged” by the vote against the referendum and they “look forward to continuing to work with county government to create a new stadium that will guarantee Northern Virginia has a Minor League Baseball presence for generations to come.” But, as Nohe suggests, there could indeed be legal hurdles that would complicate continued negotiations.
Lawson points to an opinion issued by state Attorney General Mark Herring earlier this month involving an airport commission near Newport News as potentially problematic for the proposed deal. Herring believes the commission violated Virginia’s Constitution by using its credit to prop up a private entity, and Lawson believes that could have real implications for the county.
In particular, she notes that the county is currently set to pursue a “bond validation suit” for the $35 million it needs to raise, essentially letting any interested party challenge the legality of the bonds in court to preclude future lawsuits once they’re issued. With many in the county opposed to the deal, Lawson doesn’t doubt that Herring’s opinion could soon be the basis of such a challenge.
“I can guarantee you, this is going to be raised down the line,” Lawson said. “The attorney general already opined on a case very similar to what we’re discussing.”
But stadium supporters like Supervisor Frank Principi, D-Woodbridge, stressed that the deal is by no means final, and could certainly be changed as negotiations continue. However, he did not want to see a “16-week delay” to that process, particularly if putting the matter to the referendum proved unpalatable for the team.
“We need to continue the dialogue, not delay,” Principi said. “This is an opportunity that defines our community.”
Silber warned that he’d be forced to sell the team if the board chose to defer a decision until voters headed to the polls in November. Minor League Baseball wants to see a new stadium for the team open in time for the 2019 season, and Silber says two potential buyers elsewhere would need to start working immediately to meet that deadline.
MiLB president and CEO Pat O’Conner made the trek to Woodbridge to confirm Silber’s assertions for the board, citing the county’s history of “false starts” in building a new stadium and Pfitzner’s deteriorating conditions as reasons his patience is wearing thin. Silber most recently neared an agreement for a new facility back in 2012, but he’s been pursuing a new deal for more than a decade at least.
“We’ve been sitting on our hands long enough,” O’Conner said. “If you can’t get this done now, we’re willing to move on.”
Candland decried the deadline as “artificial” and a “negotiating tactic,” but O’Conner emphasized that his league also had no desire to wait for the results of a referendum, given his past experience with ballot questions.
“We have no confidence in the process,” O’Conner said. “In this day and age, referendums aren’t favorable to issues like this. They’re filled with misinformation and public sentiment.”
O’Conner also sought to assure supervisors that they have no reason to doubt the team’s financial health, and added that the county is one of the most attractive markets in his whole league. While he doubts the Silbers would ever want to sell the team, he also believes the “line would be out the door” for prospective owners looking to take over.
O’Conner couldn’t guarantee that MiLB would take over the team’s mortgage payments if it defaults, merely suggesting that he’d be able to find a new owner that could meet the obligation. He also believes that the team is in no danger of moving, given its proximity to its parent club in the Washington Nationals and the legal headaches associated with relocation.
But Candland remained unconvinced of the deal’s soundness, and he continues to harbor serious concerns about the arrangement moving forward.
“There are plenty of people fighting for the P-Nats and JBG,” Candland said. “I think it’s time this board fights for the citizens of Prince William County.”