We need an arena referendum

We need an arena referendum

To the editor:

One of the hardest temptations for a local newspaper editor to overcome is crusading journalism and one of the easiest to which to succumb is cheerleading for local business.

Your “Model it for us” editorial from the March 14 edition steers a middle course between these opposing temptations by acknowledging the benefits an entertainment district theoretically could bring while pointing to the “many examples of how the variables used in forecasts can result in wildly different projections – not all of them accurate.” The unspoken fear is that arena backers might be biased toward stoking their economic models with rosier assumptions than prudence warrants.

Most small business start-ups have a business plan, sometimes worked out in conjunction with economic development consultants and bank commercial loan officers, but half still fail in their first year and 90% within five years. In the case of the proposed arena, failure means Virginia and Alexandria taxpayers end up on the hook since they own the property in question for which the sports teams are merely tenants.

Sweeteners like promising to convert a thousand housing units to “committed affordable” merely reinforce the fear that this deal isn’t as good as it is being made out, so holding out for a better deal might still be a shrewd gambit.

If Arlington County insists on having seats on the arena board, it should also, proportionate to its number of seats versus Alexandria’s, share in carrying the cost of the local share of the bonded indebtedness and reaping the purported profits many of us believe are illusory. Arlington having representation is reasonable because its National Landing neighborhood will bear burdens such as traffic.

But more importantly, today’s elected officials who vote for this will not likely still be in office when the chickens come home to roost. This is a single, multi-billion dollar investment with long-term consequences which the public will have to bear.

For this reason, both statewide and locally, undertaking this investment should be subject to referendum where the public which will have to bear the long-term costs will give consent of the governed. One criticism of pro-arena advocacy is that it is being run like a campaign.

In a referendum, both sides campaign and the voters decide. If the project turns out to be a fiscal albatross, the public will bear the costs more willingly having given its consent.

-Dino Drudi, Alexandria