- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 10, 2003

District Mayor Anthony A. Williams said yesterday he believes skepticism among the D.C. Council toward his $338.7million ballpark financing proposal can and will be overcome.

Williams, who spoke yesterday at a pro-D.C. baseball rally at 8th and D Streets NW, is facing another tough political battle with the stadium financing, the key legislation toward a major league team the mayor covets as part of his legacy. On one side is the city’s ache in its collective soul after more than three decades without baseball, and Williams’ pledge to not use general fund dollars toward the $436million stadium project.

On the other side are the political risks of greenlighting a massive stadium project while basic city services are being cut, as well Major League Baseball’s continued indecision on relocating a team.

In the middle is a still-wary council. The council’s first official review of the legislation comes Thursday during a finance committee hearing. Of that five-member panel, only Democrat Harold Brazil is solidly in favor of the Ballpark Revenue Amendment Act of 2003.

Chairman Jack Evans, Kevin Chavous and Kathy Patterson, all Democrats, and Republican David Catania are either undecided or against the bill in its current form. The bulk of the proposed financing relies on using ballpark-related sales and admissions taxes, as well as another tax on the gross receipts of large District businesses, to fund city revenue bonds. Much of the concern also owes to the escalating cost of the ballpark project, and what Evans in particular sees as a lack of proper safeguards for the bonds.

“To the council’s credit, they’re being good, careful stewards of city money and ensuring this is a wise investment,” Williams said yesterday. “But we need to show and will continue to show the support that is behind this effort, and that this investment will yield significant returns. That’s part of what this [rally] is about. Some people [on the council] are going to be against this regardless, but I believe the rest are going to see the merits.”

A third primary component of Williams’ proposed ballpark financing — an income tax levied solely on pro baseball players competing in the District — has been essentially dead for several weeks due to heavy opposition among MLB executives, the players’ union and Congress. A federal revision to the city’s Home Rule charter to allow for taxation of non-resident incomes would have been needed for that measure to pass, and a bill to do just that remains stalled on Capitol Hill.

As a result, nearly everyone involved in the baseball effort believes the Williams package will see significant changes before any council vote. Eric Price, deputy mayor for planning and economic development, met with Evans yesterday to begin laying out Williams’ proposal.

“It was a good session,” Price said. “We just outlined what we’re thinking at this point.”

Baseball supporters also say aiding Williams’ cause is one key question: is any member of the council willing to cast the deciding vote killing Washington’s last, best hope for baseball?

“I’m a little unsure where this is heading right now,” Brazil said. “But I believe the bulk of my colleagues do want to see baseball back, and don’t want to wear that stigma [of voting against the financing].”

Yesterday’s downtown rally, organized by Price’s office and the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission, drew more than 350 people under sunny skies and a similar pro-baseball disposition. Among those appearing were prospective team owner Fred Malek, several former Washington Senators, and authors who have chronicled the city’s long history with baseball.

“It is incomprehensible to me that a franchise still isn’t here,” said Jim Hannan, a Senators pitcher from 1962 to ‘70.

Meanwhile, doubts are continuing to build that MLB officials will meet their mid-July deadline to name the Expos’ permanent new home and move the club for the 2004 season. That has been the stated goal since last fall, but in recent weeks activity by MLB’s relocation committee has largely stagnated, and interest continues to build among MLB executives toward playing more games in Puerto Rico. The Expos will play 22 of 81 home games there this season, and the Puerto Rican promoter who guaranteed MLB $7million to make those games happen is pushing another offer MLB’s way for more games in 2004.

In the meantime, three members of MLB’s relocation committee will meet with Portland Mayor Vera Katz today. The Oregon city is one of three candidates for the MLB-owned Expos, along with the District and Northern Virginia. No such site visit has been set for either of those two jurisdictions.

“We are still waiting to hear something,” said Bobby Goldwater, D.C. sports commission president.

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