Model it for us

Model it for us
(Rendering/JBG Smith)

It’s a fact that Alexandria greatly needs to balance its tax base by drawing more businesses to the city. It’s also a fact that a sports arena and entertainment district has the potential to help in this regard.

It’s for those reasons that, despite many eloquent letters that residents have sent us opposing the arena – including several in this week’s Times – we have yet to offer an opinion on the proposal as a whole.

The potential environmental, traffic and quality-of-life concerns raised by residents about this proposal are convincing. The knee-jerk, “let the billionaire pay for his own arena” argument is less so.

From an isolated, moral perspective it is indeed repugnant to think of taxpayers’ hard-earned income funding a venture that would benefit Monumental Sports & Entertainment CEO Ted Leonsis, whose net worth is estimated by Forbes to be $3.1 billion. Images of granny clipping coupons to buy groceries and front-line workers living paycheck-to-paycheck come to mind.

But granny and front-line workers would also potentially benefit from the financial and jobs aspect of this proposal.

Elected officials and their staff in charge of development frequently – and in every state – put together attractive deals to try and lure large businesses to relocate if they have the potential to provide a large number of jobs in one fell swoop. And, despite the valid criticisms of the Potomac Yard proposal that’s on the table, this initiative does have that potential.

The biggest hitch from our perspective is the lack of transparency by the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, city staff, our local elected officials and the office of Gov. Glenn Youngkin around the variables and model used to generate the rosy economic forecasts in this proposal.

The only reason given publicly for this omission is the concern that some of the information in the model is proprietary to Monumental Sports & Entertainment. The most polite label for this response is “poppycock.”

Tell us the specific variables and model used.

If Monumental expects Alexandrians, and Virginians as a whole, to potentially be stuck with a big bill if these projections don’t come to pass, then releasing some heretofore undisclosed information may be a price they have to pay.

We tried this week, as others have previously, to get AEDP to disclose the variables and model used in their projections. Despite emailing three different AEDP officials, including President and CEO Stephanie Landrum, with this request three days ago, we have received no response as of our print deadline.

The primary takeaway from this refusal to release these variables and the overall model is that they likely won’t stand up to close scrutiny.

Former U.S. Congressman Joe Sestak wrote a compelling letter “All models are wrong, some are useful” in the March 7 Alexandria Times. 

Sestak makes a convincing case for the necessity of knowing what model was used to arrive at projections. Sestak used as an example the new arena that was built for the Dallas Cowboys football team in Arlington, Texas, when current Alexandria City Manager Jim Parajon was deputy city manager there.

There are many examples of how the variables used in forecasts can result in wildly different projections – and not all of them can be accurate. Think of weather forecasts that track the potential path of hurricanes.

Different models can predict radically different outcomes. While we might prefer the model that predicts the storm will harmlessly turn out into the Atlantic, getting it wrong could mean being unprepared for a Category 5 storm that is a catastrophe for our beloved city.