Potomac Yard development protesters hold signs against barrier.

Protesters gather outside the venue as Monumental Sports & Entertainment CEO Ted Leonsis and Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin announce a new sports arena for the Washington Wizards NBA basketball team and Washington Capitals NHL hockey team, December 13, 2023 in Alexandria, Virginia. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

(Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Potomac Yard: A Rare Victory of People Power Over Stadium Socialism

The citizens and taxpayers of Virginia handed an ignominious defeat to the combined forces of corporate bread-and-circuses and the real estate-development complex.

It seems as if there is nothing but bad news these days, from the butchery in the Middle East and Ukraine to the constitutional butchery in the Supreme Court. All the more reason to celebrate an uncommon triumph: Somehow, the citizens and taxpayers of Virginia handed an ignominious defeat to the combined forces of corporate bread-and-circuses and the real estate-development complex. The $2-billion Potomac Yard arena boondoggle is dead.

In December, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, once thought to be presidential timber (meaning: He is a reactionary troglodyte, but a mediagenic one) announced a deal he had secretly concocted with Ted Leonsis, owner of the Washington Capitals and Wizards. The scheme was to build a sports arena at Potomac Yard, once a railroad switching facility but now mainly distinguished by a strip mall and auto body shops. But that’s not all: Over 7 million square feet of the surrounding area would be developed into an entertainment district. It would supposedly create 30,000 jobs and $12 billion in economic activity.

There was just one little hitch. The citizens of Alexandria were almost unanimously opposed because Northern Virginia’s traffic, already some of the worst in the country, would become epically awful. And many Virginians were dismayed that $2 billion worth of bonds would be issued in their names, leaving them on the hook for issuance fees and 40 years of debt service—all to subsidize a billionaire mogul.

A stand of trees just might be healthier for a community than the umpteenth corporate-franchised sports bar with its focus group-choreographed “hometown” atmosphere.

Once the plan came under scrutiny, the opposition only grew. Over the last year, Alexandria’s unemployment rate varied between 2.2-2.5%. The very populous Fairfax County, which wraps around much of Alexandria, has had unemployment of 2.3%. Considering the baseline level of people changing jobs, this is essentially full employment; does the area really need 30,000 likely low-paid service jobs in an already crowded metro area?

As is usual for stadium and arena projects, a consulting firm was hired to manufacture highly optimistic economic scenarios based on assumptions that never pan out. Revenues would pay back the bonds—but predicated on $75 parking and $730 a night stays in the hotels that would be built. We still don’t know at what eyewatering level the ticket prices would be. And the arena was projected to support 221 events a year—an impossible prediction to substantiate over four decades because of potential pandemics or other disruptions, or simply declining attendance once the novelty effect wore off.

Youngkin attempted to steamroll the scheme through the Virginia General Assembly with no changes. It was his way or the highway, and disgracefully, a number of Democratic officeholders were willing to accommodate him (this shortly after Youngkin appeared at a Trump rally and proclaimed that Democrats won’t defend America). It took Louise Lucas, an 80-year-old Black state senator and chair of the Senate appropriations committee, to bring the plan to a halt. Flipping the script on Republicans who hypocritically tout their fiscal conservatism, she said that the deal could endanger Virginia’s AAA bond rating.

The entire fiasco was an example of the American ethos at its worst. Professional sports team owners attempting to feed at the public trough while big-footing a community; local developers circling like a school of hungry barracudas; elected officials either dazzled by the faux-glamor of professional sports (it is said that all politicians are suckers for Hollywood actors and jocks) or hoping to land a lucrative gig on a redevelopment corporation’s board once they leave office; deceit in planning estimates (this article is an admirable deconstruction of the economic implications of government subsidized stadiums, which usually amount to “heads I win; tails you lose”).

Unfortunately, there are also millions of Americans who would die on the barricades to resist socialism as represented by single-payer healthcare or public transit; House Republicans are already making noises about not funding the reconstruction of Baltimore’s Key Bridge. But when it is “stadium socialism,” they become like the proletarian mob of ancient Rome, grateful to the emperor for bestowing a mindless amusement on them—at their own expense (at least the Roman games were free to spectators).

Stadium socialism and $700-per-night hotel suites are the exact opposite of quality-of-life enhancements that could be achieved at a fraction of the cost. Traffic mitigation and better public transportation; walkable neighborhoods on a human scale rather than alienating steel and glass canyons; green spaces for recreation, something desperately needed in crowded metro areas. A stand of trees just might be healthier for a community than the umpteenth corporate-franchised sports bar with its focus group-choreographed “hometown” atmosphere.

Potomac Yard could certainly use such upgrading rather than building a sports mausoleum; the Washington Metro region already has an “entertainment center” masquerading as a town at National Harbor, complete with the mandatory MGM casino to draw the suckers. It fairly oozes a sterile, vacuous atmosphere that makes it the perfect venue for the annual CPAC freak-fest.

Cities and counties could plan and zone for such quality-of-life improvements, but they do not generate enormous windfalls for developers and political contributions for elected officials. The website of my own county district supervisor—a Democrat—says in bold letters, “Development and land use are very important to the growth of the Mount Vernon District in coming years.” Note that it says “growth” rather than “quality of life.” Growth for its own sake is like metastatic cancer, a pathological condition.

No doubt for every victory like Potomac Yard, a dozen major monstrosities will sail through. But not only did it prove that a vigilant citizenry can make a difference, it was also a two-fer: Glenn Youngkin’s future political viability as a Reaganesque Trump may have taken a fatal hit.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.