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Perspective | The RFK site exudes nostalgia, but sentiment can’t drive a stadium deal

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There is news that a Republican Congressman has bipartisan support for a bill that would extend the lease for the land in and around RFK Stadium to be used by the District. For many Washington sports fans — snap the fingers — that means the Washington Commanders will one day play there. The name has changed. The owner has changed. The mayor is on board. There’s so much romance woven into the relationship between that team and that plot of land. If the politics are removed, let’s go!

Oh, and two high-ranking Commanders officials hosted a fundraiser for a Maryland official who is running for U.S. Senate. And the governor of Virginia appeared at Commanders training camp, signing autographs for fans.

Presto! Josh Harris has been owner of the team for just more than a week, and he’s already in position to woo all three jurisdictions into bidding against each other to be the home of whatever replaces FedEx Field.

Easy, now. This process is back to ground zero, as it should be. This process is going to take a long time, as it should. This process can’t be based on romance. It has to be based in reality. Everyone calm down for a minute.

Here’s something to like about what Harris said last week, in an interview with The Post’s Nicki Jhabvala, about the stadium process: “We don’t really have answers coming in right now.” And from Mitchell Rales, one of Harris’s top partners: “We have no idea where we’re going to build the stadium.”

There’s something admirable about billionaires admitting they don’t have all the answers. The answers, at the moment, are unknowable.

That doesn’t mean the news this week wasn’t intriguing. But before we get to that, a reminder: Whether the Commanders’ new stadium ends up in the District, Maryland or Virginia, if it’s built with significant taxpayer funds, it’s a bad deal.

“There’s strong agreement among economists who have studied stadiums that stadiums are poor public investments,” said J.C. Bradbury, an economist at Kennesaw State University who has spent much time studying stadiums. “That’s something that has been consistent from the old super-stadiums like RFK to the newer constructions like Camden Yards — or even newer than that. It’s something that’s near universal.”

As this discussion develops, keep that thought close at hand. D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) is enthusiastically backing the RFK site for a new stadium. Friday morning, she appeared with “The Sports Junkies” on 106.7 The Fan touting the site as the best fit for the Commanders, pulling on all those heartstrings. The team’s Super Bowl runs came when it played there. This would be a mixed-use project that helps develop an underused section of the city. On and on.

But there is just a giant cart before this horse. For a couple of reasons.

First, the District needs to make sure it keeps the teams it has before it woos the teams it doesn’t. It should worry about the neighborhoods that exist and are struggling before it imagines transformations elsewhere. Monumental Sports and Entertainment owner Ted Leonsis wants the city to help with upgrades to Capital One Arena, a venue that was once credited with reviving the Chinatown area downtown.

Have you been there recently? It’s … edgy. The pandemic hit the neighborhood, and hard. The Capitals and Wizards provide 82 nights of regular season activity. Throw in preseason games for both, Georgetown men’s basketball games and concerts, and you’re looking at more than 100 dates that should help the neighborhood thrive. Take them away, and it’s a wasteland. As far as sports franchises go, that should be the District’s Priority No. 1.

According to Bradbury, most studies show that when an area develops around one arena or stadium, the money it attracts merely comes from another part of the city. “It’s just reallocated local consumption,” he said. More than that: Football stadiums are particularly lousy at bringing a return on their investments because they simply aren’t occupied as much. Yes, a first-class football stadium might have helped the District land matches in the 2026 men’s World Cup or the Taylor Swift Eras tour this summer.

New Commanders owners may start from scratch in stadium search

So maybe, maxed out — 20 or 25 dates a year? That’s not enough to put a financial burden on citizens to help provide a stage for a private business. A private business which should be treated as a civic trust, sure, but not so much so that it receives significant public subsidies.

“That’s not a legitimate function of government,” said Bradbury, the economist. “Our justifications for funding these are wrong. We need to stop doing it. It’s one of those things like, everyone used to smoke. Now, people don’t think about it. It’s a changing of attitudes. It’s not the job of governments to fund these things.”

Which is why it’s silly for anyone to stump for any stadium site at the moment. How can you endorse such a plan when there’s no clarity what sort of funding Harris and his partners would want, or how much any potential jurisdiction could and would provide? It’s in new ownership’s interest to investigate prospects in Maryland — where Commanders team president Jason Wright and head of public affairs Joe Maloney raised funds for Prince George’s County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D) — and Virginia, where Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) may be able to spur support in the legislature now that Daniel Snyder no longer owns the team. Due diligence doesn’t happen in a week.

In her radio appearance Friday, Bowser not only stumped for the legislation introduced by Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.) — a measure that would extend the lease for the use of the federally owned land at the RFK site to the District for 99 years — but said she expected to be able to work with the D.C. Council on pushing it forward.

The Council member who represents Ward 6, where RFK sits, is Charles Allen (D). He was pointed in a message sent to constituents Thursday night.

“Nothing I see in the legislation would require the stadium to be part of any development package, but it seems to leave it open along with a much broader range of activities,” Allen wrote. “As far as I can tell, it ultimately leaves the final debate where it should be — among DC residents. And as you probably can guess, my stance remains unchanged: I don’t support building a costly and rarely used NFL stadium at that site, and I really don’t support a stadium that requires substantial District tax dollars.”

The way things moved over the course of the past week seemed fast. The reality is: This is just the start. Nostalgia makes the RFK site attractive and exciting. But nostalgia can’t drive a deal.

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