For the Washington Nationals, the road to opening a glorious publicly funded hardball palace on the banks of the Anacostia River was filled with false starts and bad relief pitching. With the ballpark's opening last year, however, most D.C. baseball fans felt any and all controversy surrounding the ball club could be focused solely on roster shakeups and shady Latin American scouting. Leave it to Mayor Adrian Fenty and the D.C. City Council to throw that plan for tranquility out the window.
Next week Fenty and Nationals owner Ted Lerner will dedicate a new collection of artwork at Nationals Park in Southeast D.C. Whats the big deal about that? Perhaps it is that to pay for the artwork, Fenty and the D.C. City Council had to shift $770,000 from the city's equipment leasing fund and into the budget of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities for the purpose of purchasing artwork for the stadium, according to a report in the Washington Examiner.
Fenty claimed that purchasing the artwork with public funds would not cause the stadium's price tag to exceed the government-imposed $611 million construction cost cap.
At the time of Fenty's proposal, City Council Member Kwame Brown, (no not the former Washington Wizards "franchise player), expressed reservations about publicly funded artwork at the stadium. He took $850,000 out of the Arts Commission's 2008 budget for fears it would break the $611 million cap, and would eventually vote against the $770,000 artwork appropriation.
After getting a briefing from Fenty's staff, Brown gave the thumbs-up to the Mayor's proposal about a week later. Of course the details of this behind-closed-doors "briefing" are unknown, so just feel free to just assume there were plenty of back scratching happening.
"It's going through the arts commission and the arts commission is going to own the art," Brown told The Examiner. "They're going to put art on the garages, and they're going to do a sculpture of D.C. heroes as you walk up to the stadium."
This sounds all well and good; who doesn't like baseball and bronze sculptures of "D.C. heroes" on top of parking garages? Who are these heroes anyway? Daniel Snyder? Leo McGarry?
But whenever someone starts talking parking garage sculptures some naysayer like myself has to come along and start talking about the economic climate. Its noteworthy to mention that Fenty has recently feuded with community groups and city workers over his more controversial budgetary decisions. Decisions like selling public school space to private interests and freezing wages. With the debate over these issues at a fever pitch, perhaps it isn't a great idea to ask taxpayers to foot the bill for garage door murals. After all, it will be hard for most fans to appreciate the artwork if they can't even afford to buy a ticket to a game.
In June of 2007, D.C. Auditor Deborah Nichols briefed the City Council that any new ballpark expenditure would most likely push the stadium's cost past the $611 million mark.
"As construction of the stadium continues, the council may wish to establish or clarify the policy and procedures applicable to the addition of any new line items and the redirection of funds to increase existing line items, including establishing a dollar threshold that would trigger a requirement for council review," Nichols' June 28th report read. This was well before Fenty's artwork proposal even saw the light of day; nice to know the Auditor's findings and recommendations are being given serious consideration.
As for the Lerner family, who own the ballclub and occasionally decide to pay their rent on the stadium, it is probably too much to ask that they pick up the tab for the paintings and sculptures. Ted Lerner, the 82 year old family patriarch, is worth a mere $2.5 billion, so spending $770,000 on artwork that is ostensibly meant to be a gift to the fans of the team he owns is probably too much to ask. Better to ask the fans, and even some D.C. residents who couldn't tell you the difference between VORP and WARP, to foot the bill themselves.
To those unfamiliar with the particulars of stadium financing, $611 million is actually a relatively reasonable price for a state of the art sports facility. After all, a trillion is the billion. For comparison's sake, new stadiums for the Mets and Yankees will be opening next month with price tags of $850 million and $1.2 billion respectively. It takes a lot of Cracker Jack sales to get that kind of money back.
At the end of the day, most people who love sports, regardless of where they stand on the issue of public funding for just about anything, love it for the same reason: because they are fans, and because it is an escape. Most people who walk past a bronze sculpture or a garage mural on the way into Nationals Park on a sunny spring afternoon won't be thinking about where the money for the ballpark or the artwork came from, they will be thinking about that day's game. So go and enjoy the sights and sounds of the game, and just try to forget about the fact that you are being treated as a guest in a house you helped build but can only sleep in for four hours at a time.
Get our Newsletter!
Click here to sign up and stay informed