Could D.C. lose two of its sports teams?
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Now back to this capital city, Washington, D.C. Like many places, it's struggling to reinvent its downtown now that fewer people are working from offices. And the city may lose some more key workers, namely the Washington Wizards and Washington Capitals. This week the owner of the professional basketball and hockey teams announced a deal to relocate out of D.C. and into neighboring Virginia. Jenny Gathright of member station WAMU is here with details. Hey, Jenny.
JENNY GATHRIGHT, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: Tell us about the deal the team owners announced this week.
GATHRIGHT: Full details are still trickling out, but essentially, it's a huge $2 billion public-private partnership. The agreement is between the company that owns the teams, which is Monumental Sports & Entertainment, and officials in Virginia. It would create a huge entertainment and sports district - so not just a new arena but new practice facilities, retail, restaurants, a concert venue. And that would all be built in Alexandria, Va., right across the Potomac River from D.C. The deal still needs to clear some legislative hurdles, but Ted Leonsis, the owner of both teams, and Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin are projecting a lot of confidence that it will happen by 2028.
SHAPIRO: In which case, what happens to the neighborhoods that these teams have been in here in Washington, D.C.? What would it mean for the D.C. economy?
GATHRIGHT: It's worrying. I mean, fans bring foot traffic, which helps with public safety. Fans ride public transit into the game, so they support the D.C. Metro system. Fans support local restaurants and businesses. I spoke with a local economist who said that this downtown economic engine is what the city has been using for years to help pay for social services like housing programs and food assistance. And this potential move comes at a time of economic uncertainty for the city.
Back when that arena opened in 1997, it really transformed the Chinatown neighborhood. There was painful displacement of Chinese residents and businesses, but the transformation also grew the city's overall economy. Fast-forward to now. D.C.'s downtown is already struggling without the pre-pandemic level of office workers, and crime has gone up in Chinatown and other neighborhoods across the city over the past couple years. So these two big sports franchises leaving would compound an already difficult challenge for D.C.'s mayor, who really needs to figure out a way to reinvent the city's downtown.
SHAPIRO: What are you hearing from Wizards and Caps fans?
GATHRIGHT: So Leonsis says his company still plans to maintain a presence, an arena in downtown D.C. that would host women's professional games, college basketball and concerts. But that's not providing much solace to many sports fans here. Of course, some Virginia fans are happy, and some people are more neutral. But when I went to talk to fans outside the arena before Wednesday night's Wizards games, many of them were feeling betrayed. They felt like this owner is motivated by profit over the city's people. Here's David Levy. He's a Wizards season ticket holder and lifelong fan.
DAVID LEVY: I think it's disgusting. It's just a very short-sighted decision for a city that really needs people to be drawn downtown.
GATHRIGHT: And meanwhile, across the river, some neighbors near the proposed development are already starting to mobilize against it over concerns like traffic and parking.
SHAPIRO: Is this a done deal? Are D.C. officials still holding out any hope that they could get the teams to stay?
GATHRIGHT: D.C. officials say they're not done fighting. This week D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and lawmakers unveiled some eleventh-hour legislation that would give Leonsis' company $500 million over the next several years to renovate their downtown arena. It's something the team and the city have been negotiating over for months. So D.C. officials say they want to keep that offer on the table in case the Virginia deal falls apart. Mayor Bowser has been making the case for an urban arena over a suburban one and says that that's the best for fans.
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MURIEL BOWSER: So this is what I know about cities. People love real cities. They are hubs of history and culture and energy.
GATHRIGHT: The Virginia deal also still requires approval from both the state General Assembly and the City Council of Alexandria, and that's not guaranteed.
SHAPIRO: Jennie Gathright of WAMU. Thanks for your reporting.
GATHRIGHT: Thank you so much, Ari.
(SOUNDBITE OF KEITH MANSFIELD'S "FUNKY FANFARE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.