Nationals Owner Mark Lerner, Former D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams, Other Leaders Assess Baseball’s Impact on Washington

 
 

With young stars like Bryce Harper and arguably the best pitching staff in baseball, the Washington Nationals are poised to go far this year, perhaps making the playoffs and earning a trip to the World Series.

It’s still spring, of course, and a lot can happen in the coming months. But what can’t be denied is the economic impact that the Nationals and their stunning ballpark in Southeast D.C. have had on the surrounding area, the nation’s capital as a whole, and the entire Maryland-D.C.-Virginia region.

During an April 1 forum at Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies (SCS), several key players in that effort—including Nationals Principal Owner Mark Lerner and former D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams—discussed their dreams of bringing Major League Baseball back to Washington and revitalizing an underutilized part of the city.

Georgetown SCS panel, Ten Years After the First PitchNationals Owner Mark Lerner, Hon. Anthony Williams, and other D.C. area leaders convene at Georgetown's School of Continuing Studies to discuss baseball's impact on Washington.

“It singularly changed the perceptions and mentally remapped our neighborhood in a region of 6.2 million people,” said panelist Michael Stevens, President of the Capitol Riverfront Business Improvement District. “I couldn’t have paid for a marketing campaign to do that.”

The forum, titled “Ten Years After the First Pitch: How the Washington Nationals and Nationals Park Scored in the Nation’s Capital,” was sponsored by Georgetown’s Urban & Regional Planning (URP) and Sports Industry Management (SIM) master’s programs. Part of the semester-long URP speaker series on how cities change rapidly and the SIM program’s ongoing exploration of leadership and management relating to the sports industry, the panel was moderated by URP Executive Director Uwe Brandes and SIM Interim Associate Dean Bobby Goldwater. Both were uniquely positioned to contribute to the discussion—Brandes formerly served as Director of Capital Projects and Planning for the Anacostia Waterfront Corporation and as Associate Director of the city’s Office of Planning, where he managed the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative, while Goldwater helped lead the District’s effort to bring Major League Baseball to Washington as President and Executive Director of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission.

The award-winning redevelopment of the Anacostia waterfront spurred more than $3 billion in public and private investment in the area in just seven years. Yet only a decade ago, few people had the vision to see the forgotten manufacturing area as a potential economic magnet for the city.

Hon. Anthony Williams, former mayor of D.C.

Former Mayor Williams (right), now the CEO of the Federal City Council, saw that potential, but his first goal was simply to clean up the polluted Anacostia River and its battered shoreline. An avid “paddler” who has floated many of the country’s most beautiful rivers, he recalled taking a drive along the Anacostia before he was mayor and noting its proximity to some of Washington’s most famous sites.

Williams said there were two big incentives for addressing the Anacostia's problems. One was simply to clean up one of the main waterways “in the capital of the world.” The other was to focus people’s attention on the future of a symbolic river that “divided not only the region, but also rich and poor, black and white.”

He said a big motivation for bringing baseball back to Washington was to show a wider audience that the city was, indeed, making a comeback.

“I felt that baseball would help signal to the world that we had really turned the corner in Washington, that we had improved the fundamentals,” Williams said.

Mark Lerner, principal owner of the Washington Nationals

Lerner (right) said he had long talked with his father, real estate developer Theodore (“Ted”) Lerner, about baseball returning to Washington.

“I think my dad and I were kidding about it when I was little, thinking, boy if we could get a team here what we could do with it,” Lerner said. “Never thought it would happen.”

Eighteen federal agencies were involved in the public-private development that created Nationals Park and the revitalized neighborhood, which has become a model for other projects throughout the country. The stadium and the improved Anacostia River area have spurred the growth of restaurants and other retail businesses, as well as apartments and condominiums, office buildings, parks, and cultural facilities.

These are some of the tangible effects of having a baseball team. The intangibles—what panelist Jim Dinegar, President and CEO of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, called “the sizzle”—is the buzz that comes from having one of America’s most talked-about teams in the nation’s capital.

“It’s a different mindset in town, a real sense of pride,” Dinegar said. “I think bringing the Washington Nationals to Washington recertifies that we’re a major-league team, a major-league town, a major-league region.”

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