Photo by Keith Allison on Flickr.

Publicly-funded stadiums are a controversial issue in the District. There were public debates and long, contentious hearings about Nationals Park and the DC United stadium, and public speculation is now turning toward RFK and the future home of the Washington football team. But our latest sports project, a $50 million-plus practice facility for the Wizards, has largely flown under the radar.

I introduced legislation called the Wizards Practice Facility Cost Containment Act of 2016 earlier this month to fix that, and to set basic limits on spending. There’s a hearing on that bill this Thursday, March 24 starting at 3 pm in the John A. Wilson Building.

Here are the project’s details

Events DC, our taxpayer-funded convention and sports authority, has been tasked with building the new practice facility, and is contributing $27 million to the construction. The District government itself is contributing $23 million, and Monumental Sports, which owns the Wizards, will put in $5 million in upfront rent payments.

The project will include a practice facility for the Wizards, which will have all the modern bells and whistles the team feels it needs to attract the top talent in the league, from cryosaunas to hydrotherapy pools. The facility will also have a 5,000 seat arena that will be the new home of the Washington Mystics of the WNBA for their 17 home games each year, and that Events DC promises will host smaller concerts and entertainment events.

There’s one more detail: Under the current funding agreement, the District, through Events DC, will be on the hook for any and all cost overruns.

Too much would fall on taxpayers

I don’t think that is right, given that the primary beneficiary of this facility will be the Wizards franchise, and its owner, Ted Leonsis. I have concerns that taxpayers are funding something that Monumental Sports and Leonsis can do themselves—and teams in other cities have done without taxpayer help—but I am especially focused on the cost overrun issue.

The District has a poor track record delivering capital projects on time and on budget. I don’t need to remind Greater Greater Washington readers about the streetcar saga. Our school modernization program routinely goes over budget. Nationals Park was originally presented as a $435 million project, and even conservative estimates today put the final cost for the stadium at almost $700 million. (And that’s before we learned last month the stadium will need another $160 million in repairs and upgrades over the next 10 to 15 years.)

If we don’t bring a basic level of transparency and accountability to the Wizards project, it could easily grow far beyond our original $50 million investment.  I’ve gotten pushback that given the project is in Ward 8, which has not experienced the private investment and economic renaissance neighborhoods west of the Anacostia River have had in recent years, we should spend whatever it takes. A reckless approach to budgeting will not bring more permanent jobs and development to Ward 8, and, in fact, it could impact the money Events DC has available for important promises it has made in terms of workforce development and community programming.

Because of the funding sources used to finance the project, the project not only doesn’t need Council approval in the first place, but its costs could also go above $100 million before Events DC would need to ask the Council for additional funds. I find that troubling, which is why I introduced legislation to limit the District’s total contribution to $50 million, including both the city government and Events DC.

Let the DC Council weigh in

My legislation isn’t about killing the deal, or about taking investment out of Ward 8. Ward 8 is long overdue for investment, and it’s shameful our East of the River communities have been historically left out when it comes to large public projects. But the District’s $23 million contribution for the practice facility comes from the more than $120 million the Council already allocated to rebuild the infrastructure at the St. Elizabeths redevelopment, a project which I wholeheartedly support. It is critical that these funds go toward a plan that will provide the maximum possible benefit to the Ward 8 community.

We usually use our legislative process to iron out big questions of how to spend tens of millions of dollars. We hold hearings, have committee markups, and vote on projects and programs. We also vote every year on our city’s budget.

But this project has almost completely avoided the normal legislative process, and was set to be approved without the Council ever voting on it. There’s been no meaningful feasibility study, no cost breakdowns to justify the estimates, and only one public roundtable, held in December before most of the details of the deal had been released.

Contrast that with the process surrounding the DC United stadium, which the Council exhaustively studied through multiple hearings and votes. And, I would point out, Mayor Bowser rightly insisted on a cost-sharing arrangement with DC United in case of overruns.

The legislation I introduced several weeks ago, along with a resolution on the funding agreement, will allow the Council to vote on the project, and will require a conversation about the District’s priorities should the project go over budget. This is a basic level of accountability and transparency we should expect of all of our projects, but especially of taxpayer-funded stadiums like this.

Again, those who are interested can attend the hearing this week, on Thursday, March 24 in Room 500 in the John A. Wilson Building. To sign up to testify, contact the Committee of the Whole at (202) 724-8196 or cow@dccouncil.us by 5:00 p.m on March 22.