Comer introduces bill that could let D.C. turn RFK into Commanders home


Rep. James Comer, the Republican chairman of the congressional committee that oversees the District, introduced bipartisan legislation Thursday that could help D.C. turn the shuttered RFK Stadium site into an attractive new mixed-use development — and potentially into a shiny new home for the Washington Commanders.

“This legislation is set to pave the way for local officials to create meaningful new jobs, add millions in city revenue, and transform the Anacostia River waterfront into a lively destination for all,” Comer (Ky.) said in a statement to The Washington Post before the introduction.

Comer’s bill comes a week after National Football League owners ratified the sale of the Commanders from scandal-ridden owner Daniel Snyder to private-equity billionaire and D.C.-area native Josh Harris. The sale and the bill mark a pair of major developments that, combined, could make possible a once-longshot bid to bring the Washington Commanders back to Washington.

The legislation is a rare moment of bipartisan harmony during a tumultuous year for D.C. in Congress. Led by Comer, a Republican who has clashed with D.C. Council members and pushed through legislation seeking to block local D.C. bills, the RFK legislation is co-sponsored by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the District’s nonvoting representative in Congress.

“The RFK site sits on underused federal land in D.C. that could be redeveloped, generating tax revenue for D.C.,” Norton said in a statement. “Neither the Mayor nor the Council Chair opposes this bill, which would allow D.C. to put the site to productive use — a vast improvement on the current state of affairs. I look forward to working with Chairman Comer to pass this bill as quickly as possible.”

The possibility of redeveloping RFK also represents a potential legacy agenda item for Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who has enthusiastically pursued returning the Washington Commanders to the city. On Thursday, Bowser celebrated the introduction of the bill at a news conference at Nationals Park, where she announced a new group within the city’s economic development department that will focus on retaining, expanding and attracting D.C. sports teams and recreational opportunities for children in the city.

That includes potentially bringing the Washington Commanders to RFK.

“There is a lot of work that needs to get done between now and seeing cranes in the sky,” Bowser said of the possible development, later adding “whether there’s a stadium there or not.” “But I know Events DC is already focused on the demolition of the stadium that served us so well for so long to get ready for the future.”

Bowser did not specifically reference plans for building a Commanders stadium at the site — but during questions from the media, she made her position clear: “There’s really only one place for the team in this region. You know, I’ve been a little coy — but there’s only one choice.”

Comer’s bill — the D.C. Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium Campus Revitalization Act — would extend the lease between the District and the federal government, which owns the RFK land, for up to 99 years. With some requirements for open space and improving access to the Anacostia River, the legislation would allow for construction of a stadium, commercial and residential developments, or recreational facilities on the roughly 142-acre site. That opens the door to any number of possibilities — and portends a tense debate among members of the D.C. Council, who have disagreed about whether to turn RFK into a Commanders stadium.

Still, should the legislation pass Congress, D.C. would have a seat at the negotiating table as the Commanders, who currently play at FedEx Field in Landover, Md., search for a new home stadium. Maryland and Virginia are expected to compete with the District — though Virginia must first create a football stadium authority to finance the project, and the commonwealth cannot do so until the next General Assembly session begins in January.

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) last year proposed spending $500,000 to study the idea of bringing the Commanders to Virginia (the funding did not make it out of the Virginia Senate).

“Anything that Virginia would do has to be good for Virginia taxpayers,” Youngkin told reporters Friday, adding: “It will need to be a collaborative effort between our administration and our General Assembly.”

In Maryland, Gov. Wes Moore (D) has said he supports using some taxpayer dollars to keep the team in the state, and last year, then-Gov. Larry Hogan (R) signed a deal to borrow as much as $400 million to revamp the area around FedEx Field. On Monday night, Commanders team president Jason Wright and vice president of public affairs Joe Maloney hosted at Maloney’s house a fundraiser for Prince George’s County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D), who’s running for a seat in the U.S. Senate.

The new Commanders ownership hasn’t indicated a preferred location. On July 20, after NFL owners ratified the sale, Harris spoke personally with Bowser, Moore and Youngkin, according to three people with knowledge of the calls who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private conversations. Bowser added on Thursday that Harris and members of his investment group also visited her at city hall, noting he is “of course” looking at the site.

The day after the sale, Harris spoke fondly at a news conference of growing up in Chevy Chase and attending games at RFK. But when asked about his long-term plans for a new stadium, he grew vague.

“We would love to have a stadium where the opposing players fear to come, and our fans love to come, and our players love to come and feel welcomed,” he said. “That’s what I experienced at RFK — and whatever happens with the stadium, that’s the kind of stadium experience I want to create.”

During a fan pep rally on Friday at FedEx Field, the fans made their desire clear, chanting multiple times: “RFK! RFK! RFK!”

But it’s unclear what kind of pitch D.C. would make to the Commanders to lure the team — mainly, who would pay for a stadium. D.C. is coming off a tough budget year, while multiple professional sports teams who already play in the city are jockeying over D.C. funds for upgrades to existing arenas.

Bowser said Thursday the new sports group within the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Economic Planning and Development will be tasked with commissioning a study that may ultimately play a role in developing a proposal for a new stadium.

Keith Anderson, interim deputy mayor of the department, said in an interview that the study would include looking at financial models that have been used to construct stadiums in other cities nationwide and developing a model that could work for D.C., should the city pursue a Commanders stadium pitch.

Bowser was asked multiple times whether she would support the use of public funds to build a stadium — but she said she did not want to get ahead of the study.

“Right now we’re really focused on getting control of the land, because without control of the land, there won’t be any investment for the city,” she said.

Anderson added his group will also be examining the financial needs of other sports teams in the city, including the Wizards, Capitals, Mystics and Nationals, who have their own set of requests for stadium upgrades.

The study also intends to examine the impact of sports arenas on surrounding neighborhoods, including traffic and potential job creation and economic development, Anderson said.

Standing on a balcony overlooking the baseball diamond, Bowser motioned toward the restaurants and high-rise apartment buildings that have sprouted up around Nationals Park. And she described the impact of moving the Wizards from the suburbs to downtown D.C., “where they belong”: “What we’ve seen around stadiums and arenas in our city has been nothing short of transformational.”

Bowser said she is hoping the RFK legislation can move “expeditiously” through Congress so the city can get started on reimagining the site. Bowser highlighted that the city is already planning to build a $60 million indoor recreational facility on the RFK campus, though a spokesman for the economic development department said those plans will not affect construction of any future development, including a stadium.

Bowser said Thursday a lot of “sausage-making” went on behind the scenes in the lead-up to the legislation’s unveiling — though perhaps most intriguing has been her relationship with the Republican chairman of the powerful Oversight Committee.

Comer introduced the RFK legislation after a series of Oversight Committee hearings earlier this year digging into crime and public safety in the District — plus another in which Republicans proposed rewriting many D.C. election laws. Comer and other Republicans on the committee have been combative with D.C. Council members including Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) and Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), lambasting the council’s policing legislation as “anti-police.”

But when Bowser appeared before the committee, Republicans avoided tense confrontations with the mayor, as Comer applauded her “Safer, Stronger” public safety legislation. The two of them had a meeting before the hearing, and Comer said he was interested in working with the mayor to help bring a “new arena” to D.C.

Bowser said in a statement to The Post on Wednesday evening that the two of them found common ground when discussing “how important RFK is to DC’s comeback.”

“After discussing city initiatives with D.C. Mayor Bowser and other local stakeholders, it has become clear that addressing the deteriorating conditions at the RFK Memorial stadium site is a top economic priority for the city,” Comer said in his statement, vowing to work with D.C. officials to create a “prosperous” capital city.

The bill was a long time coming. Norton had previously led legislation that would allow D.C. to purchase the RFK site from the federal government. But team scandals complicated the legislation last year, and complicated the Commanders’ stadium search.

Many D.C. Council members were not interested in luring the team to D.C. — and especially not using taxpayer dollars to do so — as the Commanders and Snyder remained under investigation for alleged widespread sexual harassment and financial impropriety. In fact, last year Mendelson said that he would support federal legislation if it included a provision prohibiting a stadium, a major point of disagreement with Bowser. Norton, in turn, said she would not introduce the RFK bill until Mendelson and Bowser reached an agreement on the terms and conditions.

The stalemate lingered for months — but the sale of the team to Harris shifted the situation.

A spokeswoman for Norton said that Mendelson’s decision to “withdraw his opposition” to the legislation allowed her to move forward with co-sponsoring Comer’s bill. Though the bill is a lease extension versus a land sale, Norton viewed the 99-year extension as a semi-permanent solution allowing D.C. enough control of the site, said the spokeswoman, Sharon Eliza Nichols.

Mendelson said in an interview ahead of the introduction that the circumstances have changed. “It’s just a different dynamic with what’s happening now. Congress is offering the land as a lease extension for 99 years, and it appears that there is broad support for the legislation,” he said.

Still, even though the team has new ownership, Mendelson maintains he is not staking a position on actively trying to bring the Commanders to D.C. until the NFL fully releases its investigative findings into the scandals under the previous ownership. That’s unlikely to happen because one of the investigations was conducted under an agreement, signed by the NFL and the team, that neither party would reveal information about the probe without the consent of the other.

Mendelson said at a news briefing this month that the question of who would finance the stadium is a “main challenge” in the debate, and he reiterated those concerns Wednesday. “I don’t know where the public funds would come from,” he said. “The budget that we just adopted was very, very tight. … There’s a statutory limit to how much we can borrow, and it’s at the max.”

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