By John Greenya
Washington, D.C., July 12, 2009 – One of the not-so-secret ambitions I shared with my father for years was returning Major League Baseball to Washington, D.C.,” says Mark D. Lerner. His family bought the Washington Nationals in 2006 and Lerner is still pinching himself to see if it’s real. But don’t mistake his lingering euphoria for daydreaming; the 54-year-old heavy hitter hasn’t neglected his duties as a key player in Lerner Enterprises, led by patriarch Ted Lerner, arguably the most powerful private commercial builder-developer in the D.C. area.
How big is big? Founded in 1952, Lerner Enterprises comprises a full-service real estate portfolio that includes 20 million-plus square feet of commercial and retail space, as well as more than 22,000 private homes and more than 7,000 apartments. The company developed, built and manages many of the Washington area’s best-known commercial sites, including Tysons Corner Center, Tysons Galleria, Dulles Town Center, White Flint and Wheaton Plaza.
Buying the Nats was a sweet victory. Last year, Lerner told fan site nats320.blogspot.com that “baseball has always been an important part of my life. … My father loved the Senators, even worked as a concessionaire at the old Griffith Stadium. Some of my earliest and fondest memories are of watching the Senators with my dad, reading Shirley Povich articles. ... I know exactly what having a hometown team means to a community.”
He adds, “I can honestly say that next to family events like births or marriages, there is nothing that has brought me more joy than being a part of seeing Major League Baseball return to Washington, D.C. My family and I take this stewardship very seriously. … We believe the game and the new ballpark will again be something vitally important to the life of the nation’s capital. I feel it, and I see it in the faces of the fans.”
The family worked as a competitive team in its negotiations. Lerner tells Flyer, “All important business decisions the family makes—including the conclusion to bid for and buy the Washington Nationals—are reached through consensus. We respect each other’s thoughts and interests, but we’ve learned we’re successful only when we act in concert. Part of owning or managing any business successfully includes a commitment to understanding the business completely and being able to act decisively. Therefore, I and the other members of our family ownership group”—father Ted and brothers-in-law Robert K. Tanenbaum and Edward L. Cohen, all also principal owners of the Nats—“have tried to learn as much about the business of baseball as we can.”
That learning curve included championing the building of Nationals Park, a state-of-the-art, environmentally friendly, baseball-only stadium that is a sports and architectural marvel. Publicly funded to the tune of $611 million, the stadium’s completion hinged on Lerner Enterprises forking over many millions more for park upgrades such as bathrooms in all of the suites, a state-of-the-art HDTV scoreboard, plus the redesign of the Red Porch Restaurant in Centerfield Plaza, although specific figures of the family’s contributions have never been released. Opened for play on March 30, 2008, the park received a LEED Silver Certification from the U.S. Green Building Council, making it the first major stadium in the United States to receive the distinction. (LEED is a point-based system whereby projects are credited for satisfying specific green building criteria.)
Stadium attendance has both soared and dipped since its debut: In 2008, the numbers jumped almost 17 percent over the previous year at RFK Stadium (where the club played its first three seasons), but the combination of weather woes and the team’s less-than-sterling early-season record this year have contributed to fewer seats sold in 2009. Still, Paul Dickson, author of The Dickson Baseball Dictionary, says, “The one thing they really got right is the Metro access. It’s the best in the majors.”
Additional praise comes from blogger Jeff Saffelle, the man behind nats320.blogspot.com: “When the park opened, it looked fabulous. But to the Lerners’ great credit, they were not satisfied with what it looked like on that Opening Night [and], along with Team President Stan Kasten, have spent the last 14 months making the South Capitol Street ballpark even better. ... The sightlines from virtually any seat in the stadium have great views of the game.”
While the Lerners gather accolades—and some criticism, too—patriarch Ted Lerner has ceded more power and responsibility to the next generation, and especially to his son, Mark. But, unlike many families, where the children can hardly wait to take over the reins, this protégé shows no impatience.
“Without a hint of embarrassment, I can tell you my father remains my biggest hero. I think working for and with him has been one of the greatest blessings of my life. His philosophy, simply put, is that building quality and excellence will always deliver success. I think that’s driven every decision we’ve made and will continue to make.”
For years, both Lerner Enterprises and its officers have been famous for not wanting to be famous. But with such an impressive roster—the company is a minority partner in Lincoln Holdings, Ted Leonsis’ sports group that owns the Washington Capitals hockey team and the WNBA’s Washington Mystics, plus 44 percent of the NBA’s Washington Wizards and the Verizon Center—will its top executives be more willing with such previously unheard-of practices as granting interviews? Lerner quickly sends up a pinch hitter: “Stan Kasten remains the most frequently seen and quoted management figure for our franchise. Obviously, there are still some cases that demand some statement or comment from ownership, but that is still more the exception than the rule.”
For years, when it came to professional sports, the Washington Redskins were the only game in town. That’s clearly changed. Why, Flyer asks Lerner, is this city suddenly a great sports town?
“I believe you’ll see some D.C. sports franchises take advantage of this city’s place in the minds of America, rather than just positioning themselves by the games they play. For instance, the Nationals are talking up more, and marketing more, the fact that they uniquely represent the ‘national pastime in the nation’s capital.’ And that’s something no other sport in any other city can claim. I think the Capitals have certainly capitalized upon—no pun intended—the fact that their international squad enjoys success in the most powerful city in the world. The Capitol Dome and area monuments are important parts of their look, and that of the Nationals as well. That hasn’t always been the case.”
Now that Washington’s No. 1 commercial real estate family owns outright or has a piece of Major League Baseball, NHL hockey, and men’s and women’s professional basketball teams, isn’t there one piece missing in the sports pie? If Daniel Snyder, say, ever decides to put the Redskins up for sale, would Lerner Enterprises be interested in buying the franchise?
Lerner’s rapid response: “That certainly represents a far-fetched hypothetical that has not ever even been discussed.” Maybe not. Or maybe Lerner’s too smart of a sportsman to reveal his team’s game strategy, even hypothetically.
Photo: Joshua Roberts
Every seat has a great view: baseball fan Lerner at the green-friendly Nationals stadium.