City Hall Watch with Bill Rossello: A deal for the ages?

City Hall Watch with Bill Rossello: A deal for the ages?
Bill Rossello. (Courtesy photo)

By Bill Rossello

The proposed Potomac Yard sports and entertainment center may well be a deal for the ages in the Port City. But putting together economic development deals has not exactly been the city’s strength over the years. 

In fact, residents have been asking for decades why we have been so unsuccessful at attracting businesses that significantly grow the local economy and reduce residential tax burdens. It’s a reasonable question given the continuing success of our neighbor to the north. 

Developments like Pentagon City, Ballston, Clarendon and even the rejuvenation of the long-maligned areas of Rosslyn and Crystal City beat anything Alexandria has done. Add to that Arlington’s successful attraction of corporate headquarters for behemoth companies Boeing, Raytheon, Nestle and Amazon. Heck, Arlington even attracted not one, but two, Apple stores! 

Our big economic development “successes” include the Base Realignment and Closures debacle at Mark Center, a monstrous complex built on land removed from the tax rolls. It’s never been full and never fulfilled the city’s economic promises. The Patent and Trademark complex reflected a curious move to attract an agency that pioneered the federal government’s work-from-home trend more than 15 years ago. The pandemic certainly put the final nail in those coffins. 

The difference between the two jurisdictions’ economic development performance is reflected in tax rates. Arlington’s has been consistently lower. Our current real property tax rate exceeds theirs by nearly 10%. In just about every other tax or fee category, Arlington’s are lower. 

While Arlington was closing deals, Alexandria has been painfully slow to realize the significant economic potential of Potomac Yard, a 300-acre parcel the Washington Post referred to in 1990 as “one of the largest and most valuable unbuilt tracts on the East Coast.” 

In 1992, the city and residents rejected a plan by former Governor Douglas Wilder and then Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke to build a 78,500-seat stadium. A much more parochial Alexandria was clearly not ready for such a transformational project. 

About 15 years later, with the commercial end of the Yard still not built out, we watched as Prince George’s County and the Peterson Companies developed most of the 300-acre National Harbor site with its world class Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center, a major casino – for better or worse – and entertainment center and a slew of restaurants and other hotels. It has become a vibrant neighborhood and the go-to destination for companies and nonprofits for their major Washington, D.C.-area events. 

Fast forward to today. A unique opportunity has fallen into our laps: The move of two major league sports teams and the development of a world class entertainment center on the edge of town. 

The first question we need to answer is whether this holiday gift is a pot of gold or a lump of coal. Negotiated well it could be the former. Accepting the terms as presented, perhaps it would be the latter. 

Other key questions to be addressed: Will the project be good for our local businesses? Quite possibly. And since everyone loves their neighborhood, can the city pull this off without fundamentally reducing the quality of life for residents east of Russell Road and along the roads named Glebe? Maybe. 

If taxpayers and renters across the city benefit, this may be a big win. But the ultimate questions in the New Year will be these: Do residents have enough confidence in our city officials to do the right thing – and do it the right way? Unlike Arlington, their track record on economic development is dismal. And we shouldn’t count on any governor to negotiate a deal like this on our behalf. 

The right formula for City Hall will be to go slow, negotiate hard and smart, be willing to abandon the deal – always a best practice – and, for once, truly listen to the whole community on a major change. 

At this seasonal time of joy and hope, let’s hope that we have the right officials and candidates next year to make the right decisions on what may be a deal for the ages – or not. Happy Holidays, everyone! 

The writer is a civic advocate, management consultant and longtime Alexandria resident.