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Neighborhood economy thrives on rising Nats attendance

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Local,DC,Liz Farmer

A few blocks from the Nationals Park, the crowds at Justin's Cafe on First Street Southeast are buzzing.

"The vibe is definitely more fun," said owner Justin Ross. "It's definitely more dominated by Nats fans this year."

After years in which the economic promise of locating a major league ballpark downtown was unfulfilled, the Capitol Riverfront neighborhood near the stadium is experiencing an upswing in nightlife that matches the rising fortunes of the baseball team.

Fans flock to the park
More than 1 million fans through the gates in 36 home games
  Total attendance MLB rank Average attendance Most attended three-game series
2012 1,075,187* 15th 29,866 vs. Baltimore (125,291 total)
2011 842,285* 20th 23,397 vs. Philadelphia (124,253 total)
 *Through 36 games
Source: The Sports Network
   

Ross has seen the biggest difference when the team is away and people come to Justin's to watch the game on TV. "When you're 20 [wins] below .500, that's not really happening," Ross said.

Nearly a quarter-million more people have flocked to the ballpark so far this year, and total attendance for the season heading into Thursday night's game is up 28 percent compared with the Nationals' first 36 games last year. Once largely a 9 a.m.-to-5 p.m. neighborhood, Capitol Riverfront now hops on game nights, bringing a windfall to the few businesses equipped to handle thirsty fans.

Retail activity is expanding quickly and will soon catch up with the burgeoning crowds. Michael Stevens, executive director of the Capitol Riverfront Business Improvement District, said nine restaurants are slated to open within the next 14 months in addition to a Harris Teeter store with residences and a gym on the upper floors.

"We've always said we're well-established," Stevens said. "I think this next year puts us even more on the map."

As the team approaches the All-Star break sitting at first place in the National League East, the good vibes have livened up the whole neighborhood.

"This year on nongame weeks, we're doing what we did on game weeks last year," said Ross, adding that sales have steadily increased over the last two years he's been open.

With only a few other retail establishments in the area -- all of them quick-service chains -- the streets may be jumping but much of the eating and drinking is happening inside the ballpark. Michael Solem, a season ticket holder and Capitol Hill resident, said he and his friends typically eat at the ballpark or use Barracks Row as a pre- or post-game hangout.

Rising attendance has led to longer lines at the beer stand, he said, even at games with teams that in the past weren't big draws, such as the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Tampa Bay Rays.

"Now it's just really more fun -- there's so much more of a buzz and energy when you look around the stadium," Solem said.

According to Jonathan Stahl, the Nationals' director of guest services and hospitality operations, concessions sales are up nearly 30 percent, in line with the attendance increase.

The team has added 170 people to its game-day staff and increased the number of concession stands to keep pace with the rise in attendance.

"Sometimes it's a challenge to take care of all the guests in the given time frame," Stahl said. "Usually when there's an attendance increase, you see [sales per capita] go down a little bit."

lfarmer@washingtonexaminer.com

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