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Thank public opinion for Hogan's shift on Redskins stadium

Governor Larry Hogan said Maryland taxpayers would not be paying to build a new  Redskins stadium. (Amy Davis, Baltmore Sun video)

Gov. Larry Hogan’s proposal with the Department of the Interior to trade federal property in Prince George’s County with park land in Western Maryland to make way for a new Washington Redskins stadium surfaced in late-December.

Mr. Hogan’s initial public statements about the project were enthusiastic. He expressed a desire to keep the Washington Redskins in Prince George’s County and noted that the stadium could be “the nicest facility in America, with 300 acres to develop around there for entertainment, restaurants, whatever we decided.” A month later, however, he was more indifferent, noting that whether the stadium project would move forward was up to the people that live in the area and that it didn’t matter to him either way.

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This change in tone is more telling than surprising. Indeed, while there are numerous and significant obstacles for this project, none is as formidable as public opinion.

Though little is known about Maryland's proposed land swap to make way for a new Redskins stadium, land exchanges are fairly common.

For starters, Americans generally don’t support public dollars for the construction of stadiums or tax incentives to keep a team in town. And experts agree with them: A survey conducted by the University of Chicago Booth School of Business found that 57 percent of its U.S. Economic Experts Panel believed the economic benefits generated by new stadiums just don’t outweigh the costs to taxpayers.

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Maryland taxpayers have already funded $70.5 million for land and infrastructure necessary to move the Redskins to Landover and $220 million to build and finance the Ravens stadium in Baltimore. And although Mr. Hogan stated that Maryland would not spend tax money for construction, he left the door open for the funding of infrastructure improvements.

The potential pushback wouldn’t just be due to an aversion to taxes, but also the affinity for public lands.

Opposition is mounting in the Democratic-controlled Maryland legislature to Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s proposal for a new Washington Redskins stadium on parkland overlooking the Potomac River in Prince George’s County. House Speaker Michael Busch says the state has more pressing needs.

National parks like Yellowstone, Zion, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon exemplify American grandeur and attract hundreds of millions of visitors each year. But the smaller federal sites play an equally important role by preserving local ecosystems and history. For example, Oxon Cove Park — the federal land in question — offers a respite from the surrounding urban environment and features the working Oxon Cove Farm, trails for hiking and biking, and picnic areas.

Proponents of the stadium project have been quick to point out that Oxon Cove Park is underutilized, despite its proximity to a densely populated area; a 2016 estimate had park visitation around just 30,000 people per year with most of those visitors being students on school field trips. Citing visitation statistics, however, will do little to advance public support for the stadium project.

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In fact, Americans have consistently expressed a preference to preserve more federal lands as wilderness; this perspective is shared broadly across the political, geographic and demographic spectrum. A recent survey conducted by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that nearly all Americans think preserving historic buildings and landmarks is important. Marylanders feel similarly about their state lands; a 2014 Goucher Poll found that visitors gave their parks high marks and viewed preserving historic sites and conserving land as important.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan on Tuesday touted a tentative agreement he’s reached with federal officials to swap park land in Western Maryland to build a new stadium for the Washington Redskins football team in Prince George’s County.

There is, of course, the chance that when presented with a strong economic argument, Marylanders could get behind or at least be ambivalent toward the stadium project. But at a time where trash — and worse — is piling up at national park sites across the country as a result of the partial government shutdown, it seems unlikely that residents would support giving control of state park lands to the federal government or losing Oxon Cove Park.

According to a Morning Consult/Politico poll, Americans trust state residents more than President Donald Trump, former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, state governors or state representatives to make decisions concerning the status of national monuments and other federally protected land.

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Thus, political leadership should take counsel from and give deference to the collective wisdom of the people — particularly on this issue. After all, when it comes to our public lands, it’s the public’s opinion that matters most.

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Mileah Kromer is the director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College, which conducts the Goucher Poll. She is also an associate professor of political science and co-host of The Baltimore Sun’s new “Roughly Speaking: Government Edition” podcast. Her email is mileah.kromer@goucher.edu; Twitter: @mileahkromer.

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