Stopping the arena

Stopping the arena

By Allison Silberberg

The postmortem regarding the arena proposal began the minute of its demise. The proposal that came out of nowhere in mid-December 2023 has hovered over us like a wet blanket for months. This is a story of residents standing up against all odds. A David and Goliath story.

This story needs to be told accurately because there will be other economic opportunities. How we do economic development in Alexandria needs to change.

This was a Tale of Two Arenas, one with a glowing presentation and fanfare versus one with a stark reality of hard truths regarding financial risks and harmful traffic impacts.

The big announcement of the arena proposal on Dec. 13, 2023, sounded like a done deal. Dubbed by the governor and others as “the opportunity of a lifetime,” the arena was a fast-moving train with a message: Get on board or get out of the way. Our mayor exclaimed, “Let’s go!” City Council members sat on the stage with Ted Leonsis and Gov. Glenn Youngkin, posting on social media that it was a “great day for Alexandria.” They forgot one thing: many Alexandrians were left wondering what just happened.

Important stakeholders were also caught off guard. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority and the Airport Authority revealed no one had been in touch with them.

Many began to question the rosy economic projections and speak out about the financial risks and quality-of-life disruptions. Specific information about the arena proposal was impossible to obtain. Eventually, summaries of reports were shared but always without data to back up the projections. Things were kept secret from state legislators, the public and the media.

Without complete and accurate information from the city and governor, and realizing that the city and Monumental Sports & Entertainment had lobbyists already working in Richmond, the Coalition to Stop the Arena was co-founded by former Vice Mayor Andrew Macdonald and Adrien Lopez.

Residents from across our city became researchers and lobbyists in the grassroots effort. We pushed two main points: The financial risks to the Commonwealth and our city and the proposed arena’s traffic impacts at least 275 nights a year.

Through a Freedom of Information Act request, we learned the city spent over $700,000 on lobbying and marketing for the arena, plus enormous amounts of staff time. Leonsis also spent huge sums. Stop the Arena’s all-volunteer team had a $30,000 budget.

Stop the Arena found inaccuracies in statements from Monumental, the governor and the city. We were buoyed by economists who wrote about numerous bad deals that involve public subsidy for sports arenas and debunked projections that the arena would create 30,000 jobs and be a financial boon. Polls showed the arena proposal was not popular.

The city held public events, but at town halls, they only allowed questions on cards, meaning no real engagement with the public. At the Charles Houston Town Hall, Council sounded like enthusiastic salespeople. The public’s concerns seemed to be dismissed. Frustration grew.

In spite of growing opposition, Council continued to strongly support the proposal. In response, Stop the Arena focused its energy primarily on Richmond, and members of our group made numerous trips to meet with senators, delegates and staff.

We met with countless elected officials, including State Sen. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth), chair of the Senate Finance Committee. We are grateful to her and all who stood with us. In early March, it was a miracle when the budget went to the governor without mention of the arena, largely because of Lucas’ leadership.

On March 27, we heard Leonsis and Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser would announce that the District teams would remain there. Just before Leonsis and Bowser publicly revealed their agreement, our city and mayor put out statements that Alexandria had ceased negotiations, but their statements rang hollow. In truth, Leonsis had ceased negotiations and had apparently been negotiating with Bowser for weeks.

Lucas’ stalwart position, combined with community opposition, clearly stopped the arena proposal in its tracks in Richmond. That’s why Leonsis went back to Bowser. The Richmond Times-Dispatch’s recent editorial stated, “The arena proposal flopped thanks to flawed economics and poor salesmanship.”

Going forward, the community should be heard, and the conversation should be open, transparent and with real civic engagement. Everyone is for more economic development, but it must fit into our city.

As I have said since 2018, I envision a tech corridor with the Virginia Tech Innovation Campus as the catalyst in addition to mixed-use development. As economist Stephen Fuller stated in Wednesday’s Washington Business Journal, Potomac Yard is the city’s “last opportunity to win big in the technology sector.”

The writer served as mayor of Alexandria from 2016 to 2019.