For the Washington Nationals, it's World Series or bust, and the city of D.C. has a lot riding on it. With opening day around the corner, fans will soon fill Nationals Park. The stadium was built on the taxpayers' dime after a lot of controversy and political wrangling. Five years later, opinions remain split on whether taxpayers got a good deal.
All around the ballpark, the neighborhood seems to have transformed with the team's winning ways. Construction is underway, people are moving into the neighborhood and there's more to come.
"I think the ballpark has a lot to do with it," said Erika Schilling, who moved to the area after the stadium was built.
Many from the old neighborhood are gone, but some like Lady Moed Beast were able to stay.
"If you take a look around, it's self-evident. It's a beautiful neighborhood," she said.
At Cornercopia, a small sandwich shop and store near the stadium, owner Albert Oh has seen his fortunes rise with the Nats arrival.
"It was sort of a struggle. We had our period of slow times," Oh said at first. "We knew it was just a matter of time before things would really start to pick up."
The $611 million stadium, paid for by taxpayers, was the cornerstone in the city's efforts to revitalize the area. Ward 2 D.C. councilmember Jack Evans was perhaps the team and stadium's biggest cheerleader.
"I thought it was worth it at the time, and I always had confidence that bringing baseball back to Washington was the right thing to do, building the stadium was the right thing to do," Evans said.
As the Nationals head into a new season with a World Series in its sights, here's a reality check. Projections at the time the stadium deal passed in 2006 were wildly off.
In a report used by the city's Chief Financial Officer to obtain financing, the city had counted on the stadium to bring in $24 million a year last year from taxes on tickets, parking and concessions. In fiscal 2012, tax figures provided by the CFO's office showed the stadium only brought in $12.6 million in tax revenue despite finishing with the league's best record.
"Having a team, a baseball team in Washington is a great, great thing. But having a winning team is not the same as saying it's a winning financial bid for the city," said Ed Lazere, Executive Director of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute.
The group believes the numbers show the stadium isn't pulling its weight. It was critical of a taxpayer-funded stadium then and now.
The city tapped a ballpark fee and utility tax on businesses to pay the lion's share of the stadium. That tax brought in $42.6 million last year, according to the District's CFO's office.
The team owners chipped in only $5 million in rent. Critics call it corporate welfare for billionaire baseball owners that don't benefit the welfare of the city.
"There is no doubt we could clearly use those resources to pay for things that are important to the city ... our libraries and recreation centers are not open on Sundays for the most part because we don't have the money to keep them open," Lazere pointed out.
By the time the stadium is paid for, the interest will push the cost to nearly a billion dollars. The city remains on the hook for any major repairs. Meanwhile, community groups promised a share of the wealth at the time of the stadium deal eventually lost out.
"It's not just about the team, the team winning and the team benefiting, but also that it shouldn't just be development immediately around the stadium, but it should be something that helps generate income for the entire city," said Reverend Jeffrey Krehbiel with the Washington Interfaith Network.
The group fought for a community benefits fund, which was included in the final stadium deal to appease the opposition. The money would be used to pay for parks and other projects directly benefiting neighborhoods. Not a dime was ever spent. The city council abolished the fund, which had $23 million, and rolled it into the city's general fund.
"We have a winning team, said Pastor Anthony Minter, who is also part of the Washington Interfaith Network. "I think now is a good time to look at that and reinstate it."
The stadium however has paid off for the community in other ways. It's created hundreds of jobs and property values along the Capitol Waterfront have soared.
"Prior to the baseball stadium being built, nothing was happening, and once the baseball stadium thrived, everything began to happen," Councilmember Evans said.
Meanwhile, the surplus in taxes on businesses could pay off the stadium debt 10 years early. The city also stands to make millions more if the team makes the playoffs as it did for the first time last year since coming to Washington. The economic impact trickles down to places like Cornercopia.
"I think it's a home run, definitely," said Oh. "People are talking about D.C. and that's in part because of the stadium and the team that was brought here."
Like it or not, the city made an investment in the stadium. As spring training gets underway, Nats fans and the city are hoping the hometown team's winning ways pay off by filling the stands and city coffers.
Winning will do a lot to increase the city's tax revenue. Attendance at Nationals games improved throughout the season with the team's success. That pushed tax revenue above last year's original projections.
This year, team officials say they are seeing a surge in interest and excitement. That should be a big factor when the city's finance office finalizes its estimates for the coming year, which are due out later this month.
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