County Council questions financial risks of stadium proposal
D.C. United officials attempt to assure leaders that fans will come
Officials with the D.C. United professional soccer team faced a tepid reception from Prince George's County Council members Tuesday over their plans to build a $195 million soccer stadium in central Prince George's County.
Council members said they were concerned that having the county and state borrow up to $141 million to pay for the stadium and use fees from ticket sales to make up for the expenditure would leave the government on the hook if audiences shrink or if the professional league folds.
"I don't hear a plan. I hear sound bites," said Councilman Tony Knotts (D-Dist. 8) of Temple Hills during a nearly two-hour meeting with D.C. United owner Victor MacFarlane to brief the council on the stadium proposal. "What happens if attendance isn't what you thought it was? Who fills the gap?"
D.C. United announced plans last month to relocate to the county from their current home at RFK Stadium after discussions to build a new stadium in Washington, D.C., encountered problems. Team officials are currently looking at two sites: one across the road from FedEx Field in Landover and another site near the Morgan Boulevard Metro Stadium to the south of FedEx Field.
Team estimates place the cost of the stadium between $180 million and $195 million. It would be built using up to $90 million in state and $51 million in county bonds, with the team contributing about 25 percent of the remaining cost. Team officials say the long-term bonds would be paid off from admission and amusement taxes by game fans, at about $6.9 million per year.
"We want to be here as an economic driver," MacFarlane told the council. "We're taking advantage of no tax base that you have but for the admission and amusement taxes."
The stadium would also open up either site for new commercial restaurants and development, MacFarlane said, and could serve as a new site for outdoor concerts.
A state bill authorizing the Maryland Stadium Authority to start negotiating for the arena will have a committee hearing March 17 in Annapolis.
But council members questioned the deal's cost to the county, which is facing deficits and is considering cutting more than 320 government employees to make up costs.
"How can you reassure us?" asked Councilman William Campos (D-Dist.2 ) of Hyattsville, who called the stadium "great news."
"How do we convince [people] with concrete numbers that this will be good for the community?" Campos asked.
MacFarlane and team President Kevin Payne said they are optimistic that they will bring the team's roughly 20,000 fans to the new site and draw an additional 4,000 fans from Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties that will increase admission taxes.
"We really don't think we're going to lose fans," Payne said, adding that about five percent of the team's fans are from the county. "... We think people will come."
Councilman Thomas E. Dernoga (D-Dist. 1) of Laurel noted that attendance for the team hovers around 16,000 and 20,000 fans per game now, though projections list about 22,000 fans at each game.
"I'm looking at the math, and it's troubling to me," Dernoga said. "I'm sure this is a good stadium for you. I'm looking at the taxpayers' risk. I want to know how much we're going to pay."
Other council members said they were concerned that road improvements and other costs wouldn't be covered under the deal.
"What about overruns?" asked Councilman Eric Olson (D-Dist. 3) of College Park.
"[The stadium authority has] told me that they don't have cost overruns," MacFarlane replied.
"Oh really? Can you get that in writing?" Olson asked.
The council comments are the latest round of concerns to be raised about the stadium since lawmakers and county officials joined with the team to announce the plan last month.
Residents spoke against the deal after the briefing.
"A well-dressed lie cannot hide the truth," said Jerry Mathis, a county real estate agent. "This is not a good deal for the people of Prince George's County."
Team officials have been trying to organize their own support for the plan. In a letter to fans on their Web site, Payne called for supporters to e-mail and speak out in favor of the project.
"I cannot over-emphasize the importance of this. We have to let the lawmakers know that we want the stadium, and we'll fill it up once it's built," Payne wrote. "A failure in this effort could have far-reaching effects — the bottom line is we cannot remain long-term in RFK, and this is the only stadium option which is available to us now."
E-mail Daniel Valentine at firstname.lastname@example.org