Nats Park Wasn't a Win for D.C. Taxpayers Either

So many bad takes about how beneficial the ballpark has been to D.C.'s bottom line.

The World Series came to Washington, D.C., over the weekend, and, well, it could have gone better for the home team. The Nationals lost all three games, and head to Houston needing back-to-back road wins to become champs.

Adding insult to injury, the Series has prompted a bunch of lazy media takes about how us D.C. residents never have fun and are only political animals who don’t live real lives. What caught my eye, of course, is that the New York Times combined its pile of weak, “This Town” stereotypes with some bad economic analysis regarding Nationals Park and the effect it has had on the local economy.

Nats Park, as it’s known, was built with some $700 million in public funding after a long, arduous political process, as detailed last week in the Washington City Paper. The D.C. neighborhood in which it is located has been booming in recent years. It’s consistently covered in construction cranes, as high-rise apartment building after high-rise apartment building creeps up into the sky.

The Times, with no evidence whatsoever, credited the ballpark with the neighborhood’s renaissance, parroting a claim that’s pretty common these days:

When the ballpark opened in the Navy Yard neighborhood 11 years ago, the area was struggling to move past decades of drugs and violence. It was a wasteland of car repair shops, garbage truck parking lots and asphalt factories. But the ballpark led the way for restaurants, condos and hotels, and Audi Field, home of Major League Soccer’s D.C. United, down the street.

An even wilder distillation of that viewpoint came from D.C. city council member Jack Evans, who recently said this:

“Where would we be without the arena, the convention center and hotel, the ballpark, Audi soccer stadium,” Evans asks and answers, “We’d be Detroit, a city still struggling in every respect.”

Sorry, but I can’t let this one go.

First, what a weird comparison for Evans to make: Detroit also has publicly-funded sports stadiums, as well as convention centers and hotels. The chief difference between the cities is that Detroit’s main industry — automaking — went bust, and D.C.’s — the business of government — didn’t. No soccer field or convention center changed that.

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But even with Evans’ weirdness aside, it’s simply not the case that Nats Park is responsible for the economic growth in southeast D.C.

The tough thing about these debates is that they’re always based on counterfactuals: We can’t know for sure what would have happened in the alternative universe in which the Nationals never came to D.C. and Nats Park was never built.

But what we can do is look across D.C. at other neighborhoods in which there is no baseball stadium or other taxpayer-funded amenity to see how they’re doing. And in place after place, you see the same sort of development that’s occurring around Nats Park.

Columbia Heights, Petworth, NoMa, and many of the other neighborhoods that are rapidly developing during D.C.’s current economic boom managed to do so without a sports stadium. The common connecting thread across the city isn’t any particular amenity, but D.C.’s broad economic growth and ballooning population of younger, relatively wealthier millennials.

It beggars belief to think the same effect would not have occurred in southeast without Nats Park or the subsequent addition of Audi Field, which cost D.C. taxpayers another $150 million.

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As this excellent piece in the Washington Post makes clear, the neighborhood around Nats Park was already beginning to feel the effects of D.C.’s wider gentrification before the ballpark came along. Thus, the businesses the city bought out to make way for the stadium received buyouts that were way, way above their property values at the time.

Simply put: Nats Park rode the economic development wave, it didn’t create it.

If there’s anything on which economists across the political spectrum agree, it’s that sports stadiums don’t drive economic development or cause economic growth. Neither does the World Series itself cause much of an economic boost, despite what tourism offices tell you. Sports can make the people who live in a city happy — even more so if the home team manages to win — but they can’t make the city rich.


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