The dream of the Burgundy and Gold returning to play in the District got a step closer to reality on Wednesday when the House Oversight Committee approved the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium Revitalization Act.
The bipartisan House bill would, as it’s currently written, result in the District getting a new 99-year lease for the federally owned RFK site and would allow for the building of a new stadium, with commercial and residential development wrapped into the project as well.
The legislation still has to make its way through Congress, and there are plenty of hurdles ahead before football returns to the banks of the Anacostia River. The politically-connected residents around the RFK site have always had mixed feelings about football, the traffic and the crowds, and that hasn’t changed since the Redskins left in the 1990s for the suburbs of Landover. It would be a mistake to underestimate how much clout those residents have with local leaders.
It’s a factor that has stymied football stadium efforts in the past. And it’s at least part of the reason the team wound up in Landover, which was, at the time for owner Jack Kent Cooke, the path of least resistance. It still is.
When Cooke realized in the early 1990s that the team had to leave the District, he looked first to Virginia. And the reason the team isn’t playing today in the Potomac Yards area is the NIMBYs — the not-in-my-backyard activists.
Cooke and the governor of Virginia at the time, Douglas Wilder, stood together at a news conference in 1992 declaring Potomac Yards the new home of the football team. But those plans were crushed by community pressure from those who had no interest in having a football stadium in their backyard. It often stops projects like these dead in their tracks in Virginia.
Cooke then wanted to build the stadium in Laurel, Maryland. But residents there turned out in large numbers at public meetings to oppose it, actually booing team officials.
There remains strong opposition in neighborhoods surrounding the RFK site to any use of the land other than parks and recreation. Those neighborhoods still had a working-class feel when the football team left in 1996, but they now consist mostly of lawyers, lobbyists and Capitol Hill staffers — people who know how to fight city hall.
They have the ears of those on the D.C. City Council who have made it clear they won’t support a new stadium on the RFK site, despite Mayor Muriel Bowser’s strong support for being the new Commanders home.
Last year, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said he would not support any legislation that included provisions for a new stadium. He also added a budget amendment to extend a provision in the D.C. code that prohibits Events DC from spending city money to bring the Commanders back to the city, according to a June report by WUSA9 TV.
Financing also remains a significant hurdle. Sources close to the District administration have been told that the new owners, Josh Harris and his band of saviors, after spending $6.05 billion to purchase the team, don’t have the resources to fully fund a new stadium in the city. And Harris, who also owns the Philadelphia 76ers and New Jersey Devils, is in the middle of a fight for a new $1.3 billion arena for the basketball team in Philadelphia’s Center City that his ownership, along with other investors, will be paying for.
The District is going to have to get creative to come up with some sort of financing mechanism for the new stadium. In July, Bowser announced a new group as part of her administration’s economic development department that will focus on supporting and attracting sports teams in the District.
A new facility will be costly wherever it is. Last month, the Associated Press reported that the price tag for the new $1.4 billion Buffalo Bills stadium which started construction four months ago had jumped another $300 million, due to increased labor and material costs.
Maryland Gov. Wes Moore has also been very vocal about keeping the team in the state.
At an August televised town hall meeting, Moore said his administration has had discussions with the new Commanders owner that have included using public money to help pay for the stadium — a commitment that former Gov. Larry Hogan had been unwilling to make.
“That’s part of the conversation, part of the negotiation that’s coming up now … that’s going to be led by the team owners … I believe this stadium should be in Prince George’s County. I believe it will be in Prince George’s County. I know that we’re excited to support the endeavor to make that happen,” Moore said.
Maryland remains the path of least resistance, since FedEx Field is already located there. Next door often is. Both the New York Giants and the Philadelphia Eagles built their stadiums next to the previous ones.
Under Dan Snyder, the Commanders studied the possibility of building a new stadium next to the existing one, but closer to the Morgan Station Metro stop, which is now about a mile away.
Virginia? Not likely. Officials there made a lot of noise with the much-ballyhooed plan for a $3 billion “mini-city” stadium in Woodbridge. That plan fell apart under the pressure of the onslaught of the investigations into Snyder (and the comments by Commanders defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio that the Jan. 6 riot was a “dust-up”). But the NFL would let them put the new stadium on a barge in the Potomac River before signing off on Woodbridge.
According to a May ESPN report, Virginia officials will offer the best incentive package — potentially up to $1.5 billion — for a new stadium and development, according to a prospectus prepared by Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment and its advisers.
That prospectus isn’t worth the paper it was printed on.
Virginia has never truly been a legitimate option for a number of reasons, from the complicated politics with a long history of failed similar projects to the lack of a credible site.
Besides, why would the Commanders want to surrender the state of Maryland to the Baltimore Ravens?
Harris appeared before the Economics Club in the District for an interview recently with David Rubenstein and was asked about his group’s plans for a new stadium. “We are very excited to be welcomed by all three jurisdictions and we’re looking forward to the process,” Harris said. “The sooner we get started, the sooner we’ll have a new home.”
Remember Cooke had three Super Bowls in his pocket. Look where he wound up.
⦁ You can hear Thom Loverro on The Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.