Potomac Nationals consider move to Alexandria

Potomac Nationals consider move to Alexandria
The $35 million proposed stadium in Prince William County the Nationals had hoped to build before negotiations fell through (Courtesy Photo)

By Evan Berkowitz | eberkowitz@alextimes.com

City leaders have mixed views on the possibility of a minor league baseball team’s return to the Port City, with Mayor Allison Silberberg preaching caution while Vice Mayor Justin Wilson expressed excitement at the prospect.

The relocation possibility was first raised when Wilson told the Washington Business Journal on July 14 that he’s interested in bringing the Potomac Nationals, or P-Nats, back to the city, should a “feasible” path forward appear.

The P-Nats, a high class A Carolina League affiliate of the Washington Nationals, originally hailed from the Port City: they started life as the Alexandria Dukes in 1978. The team later moved to Prince William County, where they’ve been for 30 years. Now, the team may move or be sold, the Business Journal reported, after negotiations with county leadership for a new, $35 million stadium fell through.

P-Nats owner Art Silber told the Alexandria Times Monday afternoon that the team was “delighted” to hear of Wilson’s interest and are eager to begin the conversation.

“We are aware of our Alexandria heritage,” said Silber, who bought the team in 1990, seven years after it relocated. “Nobody could possibly complain about Alexandria [not] having potential for a minor league team.”

Several other Northern Virginia communities have expressed interest, Silber said. He declined to name localities or provide a number of interested parties, instead saying the team had “been very gratified with the number of responses and certainly the quality of those communities that have approached us.” Wilson said his first statement on the matter was in response to a Business Journal reporter’s question and that he had not discussed the topic with other city elected officials or the team.

He said he asked city economic development staff, as well as City Manager Mark Jinks, to contact the team and gauge interest.

“If there is a scenario where we could bring minor league baseball back to Alexandria, I’d be all for it,” he told the Business Journal. “I’ve asked that our staff explore scenarios that might be feasible.”

City Spokesman Craig Fifer wrote in an email that the city manager’s office’s consideration can only be broad, as it lacks “direction by city council,” and that a new ball field is not part of any small area plan.

“Stadium projects are typically very challenging for localities,” Fifer wrote. “However, we will remain open-minded as the discussion continues.”

Silberberg said she would wait for Jinks’ office to provide more information before developing a position on the issue.

While describing herself as an avid baseball fan, Silberberg said the unclear circumstances of the Prince William deal’s disintegration gave her pause, as did the specter of a possible sale Silber reluctantly raised in the Business Journal report.

“While all of us would love to have a Minor League Baseball team in Alexandria, it’s not as simple as it might appear at first glance,” she said.

Jinks’ office must look at team financials and ascertain whether reports were accurate that Prince William County residents could have been liable had the team’s fiscal fortunes shifted, she said.

“We would want to know much more information from our staff and be cautious,” Silberberg said. “We have to be cautious and focus on our city’s economic interest.”

Silber, the P-Nats owner, said he understood the trepidation but dismissed financial concerns, saying a stadium pact with any locality “is about as riskless a deal as there is.” “It is proper for anyone we’re going to talk to to have questions,” he said. “It would be our job to properly explain that, so that the community could understand that what we’re doing is bringing in a fantastic amenity.”

Silber cited statistics on commonplace public funding of sports arenas and touted his team’s financials while mentioning that Minor League Baseball has systems in place should teams falter.

Wilson said he would not support putting substantial public funds toward attracting the team, citing Alexandria’s fiscal needs.

He said he would, instead, want to explore whether a public-private partnership, perhaps in concert with other development in the Port City, could make sense.

The Alexandria Dukes started their run as a Pittsburgh Pirates farm team, according to a 1983 Washington Post article about the Dukes’ original move to Prince William County.

They also spent one season as the Alexandria Mariners, the Business Journal reported.

Tensions with Alexandria over the Dukes’ small home stadium prompted the original move, the Post reported in 1983, as the team’s field at Four Mile Run Park, near Cora Kelly Elementary School, could only seat 1,800 people.

Former Alexandria Mayor Frank Mann, for whom the Dukes’ former field at Four Mile Run Park was eventually named, panned the move in 1983, according to the Post.

“I worked hard to bring that team to the city,” he told the Post at the time. “To see it go is a very bitter pill to swallow.”

The Business Journal reported space near the Van Dorn Street Metro Station on Eisenhower Avenue as a possible Alexandria Stadium site, as well as the site of their original home field at Four Mile Run Park. The Alexandria Aces collegiate summer baseball team currently play at Frank Mann Field.

Aces co-founder Pat Malone told the Business Journal that Eisenhower Avenue, specifically Hensely Park, would be the best bet.

Wilson expressed optimism about what it would mean to attract the team back to its original home.

“If there’s a possibility to bring them back to Alexandria,” he said, “Let’s look at that possibility.”