D.C. communities fight baseball stadium, gentrification

On Sept. 30, District of Columbia Mayor Anthony Williams an­ nounced plans to build a new $440 million publicly-funded sports stadium. The stadium is supposed to be the new home of the former Montreal Expos baseball team.

This plan is part of an overall project to gentrify Washington, D.C.—to shift the national and class composition of the city from one that is predominantly African American and working class to one that is white and wealthy. Washington, D.C. is the fifth-largest metropolitan area in the United States.

The Washington, D.C. area is one of the most affluent in the country. It includes counties with average household incomes among the highest in the nation. Currently $27 billion is being spent on development projects, and it is one of the hottest real estate markets in the country.

At the same time, the percent of people living in poverty in Washington, D.C. is almost twice the national percentage. Washington, D.C. has the highest infant mortality rate and the highest AIDS rate in the country.

In 1990, African Americans made up almost 66 percent of the population in D.C. In 2003, the number of African Americans living in the District had been reduced to 59 percent. In those thirteen years, the white population rose from less than 30 percent to over 36 percent. Far more pronounced than in other U.S. cities, in the District of Columbia there is an evident and direct correlation between race and class. The Black population is mainly working class, while the white population is primarily middle class and upper middle class.

The city plans to build the new stadium in a working class, African American neighborhood. Only 40 percent of the site is currently vacant, so people who live in the area will be forced to move. Those attending the games, and likely most of the new businesses that flock to the stadium area, will undoubtedly be predominantly white and middle class. The city plans to run ferries to transport people from Georgetown, predominantly white and one of the richest areas in the District, to bring people to the stadium.

Public funds, private property

The economics of the stadium boil down to this: working class people will be taxed to fund the stadium, while the proceeds from the stadium will go to further increase the riches of the billionaire team owners and real estate developers.

The city plans to use $440 million worth of 30-year bonds to fund the stadium. To pay the debt from the bonds, the city will impose an additional tax on District-based businesses, raise taxes on concessions sold at the stadium, and collect annual rent payments from the baseball team’s owners.

Many fear that businesses will pay the tax by raising prices, passing the tax onto the consumer. This way the city hides the fact that working people will pay the costs of the stadium. The rent paid by the team owners will cover less than 18 percent of the costs—the lowest percent paid by owners for the last ten stadiums built in the U.S.

Washington Mayor Anthony Williams claims that the stadium will bring jobs and revenue into the city. But many studies have disproved the argument that the public funding is an investment in the economic revitalization of an area.

Stanford University economist Roger Noll, co-author of “Sports, Jobs, and Taxes,” told the Sept. 30 Washington Post, “If they’re trying to sell it on grounds of actually contributing to economic growth and employment in D.C., that’s wrong. There’s never been a publicly subsidized stadium anywhere in the United States that had the effect of increasing employment and economic growth in the city in which it was built.”

Dissent vs. propaganda

The same Post article noted that 70 percent of people in Washington objected to public financing of the stadium, according to a 2003 poll.

Anticipating opposition to building the stadium in a city severely in need of public funding for housing, job programs and other social needs, the city government has been carrying out a concerted propaganda campaign to convince those who will suffer as a result of the stadium. The Oct. 11 Washington Post reported that the mayor had set up a baseball “war room” and hired a consultant to “sharpen his message.”

They claim that baseball officials will give out several hundred tickets each game to low income youth. But after giving away “hundreds” of tickets, there will still be over 40,000 out of a 41,000 seat stadium to be sold at exorbitant prices, costing the owners little.

Officials are also saying they will donate $1 into a community sports fund for each ticket sold above 2.4 million per year. But they also say that they expect to sell about 2.4 million tickets per season—meaning they don’t actually expect to contribute any funds.

Faced with community opposition, Mayor Williams defended the plan to use tax money to fund the stadium: “Do I think it’s the ideal, optimal way to do business? No. Of course, I would like some owner to come in and pay. But that’s the reality of the sports world.” But D.C. was competing with several other cities for the stadium. The city is getting the deal because of the offer to fully fund the stadium with taxpayer money—an offer none of the other five prospective cities could make.

The D.C. area is one of the largest metropolitan areas that does not have a baseball team. Major League Baseball owners should be begging to come to the city, offering to pay for all the expenses that come along with it, not the other way around.

People are encouraged to root for their home team—“our team.” But these teams are not “ours.” They are completely owned by millionaires and billionaires for the benefit of the private owners. All decisions are based on how the profits will be increased for the 30 owners. Capitalist relations—the private ownership of all sources of wealth—im­ pact on all areas of life, including sports.

The deal still has to be finalized by Major League Baseball and approved by the D.C. City Council. Williams hopes the City Council approval will happen by the end of 2004, prior to the time that three new Council members who oppose the stadium, including former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, take office.

Immediately following the city’s an­ nounce­ ment, organizing to oppose the stadium began, especially in the African American community. The people of Washington have only a short time to mount their opposition to this plan.

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