- The Washington Times - Friday, June 20, 2003

Major League Baseball’s relocation committee remains on track to make a recommendation on the future of the Montreal Expos by the All-Star break, according to the local baseball lobbies after meetings with the committee yesterday.

The Washington area feelings of optimism run counter to recent and growing signals from baseball that an Expos move for next season is becoming all but impossible. Not the least of those signals is the ongoing development of contingency plans to return the Expos to Puerto Rico for part of the 2004 season if a permanent move does not happen.

But following separate three-hour meetings with MLB chief operating officer John McHale, chief financial officer Jonathan Mariner and chief legal officer Tom Ostertag, local officials remained convinced a decision on the Expos is less than four weeks away.

“There’s essentially two parts to this recommendation: Are they ready to move for 2004, and if so, which city?” said Steve Green, special assistant in the District’s office for planning and economic development. “There are a variety of ways they could still go. But we have every sense they are sticking to the timetable they have laid out, and that’s certainly good to hear.”

Gabe Paul Jr., executive director of the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority, concurred.

“We were told the All-Star Game is still the goal to make the recommendation,” Paul said. “This committee is being very careful, very detail oriented. But we have not seen any real deviation from the original schedule. This meeting, like the others, was very productive.”

McHale, Ostertag and Mariner were not available for comment. MLB executives have jealously guarded any details on their leanings toward the Expos’ new home.

Yesterday’s sessions for each jurisdiction represented an update on formal presentations made to the relocation committee three months ago in Phoenix. In both meetings, McHale, Ostertag and Mariner received more data on proposed financing measures, site specifics such as zoning, land acquisition and environmental issues, as well as projected support from the local business community.

“They’re getting into the due diligence, all the details, under the proposal,” Green said.

Leading Virginia’s delegation yesterday were Paul and stadium authority chairman Michael Frey. Leading the District’s group was Mayor Anthony A. Williams and Eric Price, deputy mayor for planning and economic development.

Despite the potentially impending decision on the Expos, each jurisdiction still has significant issues with its baseball bids.

The District is wrestling with how to make Williams’ current $338.7million ballpark financing bill politically viable. The D.C. Council and several other parties have varying problems with each of the proposed revenue streams: a tax on the gross receipts of large District businesses, tax revenue from ballpark-related commerce such as ticket sales, and a tax on the salaries of pro baseball players competing in the District.

In an attempt to overcome those hurdles, Price and Williams met Wednesday with Jack Evans, chairman of the council’s finance committee — the second such session in less than 10 days. Evans also was scheduled to attend yesterday’s meeting with MLB before a personal matter prevented that.

But a way to fund the public sector portion of a proposed $436million stadium project while also mollifying the council’s concerns about tax hikes and bonding safeguards has not firmly materialized.

One idea currently being discussed is pooling some sales and use tax revenue from businesses near the stadium to help fund construction bonds. Creating such a tax-increment finance district was part of the original Williams ballpark bill before being removed in recent weeks.

“It’s a concept we’re talking about, widening out that base of potential [tax revenue],” Green said.

In Virginia, troublesome site issues continue to dominate the process. The stadium authority continues to covet two potential stadium sites in Pentagon City, one the current site of a shopping center anchored by a Costco store and the second a parcel owned by the Morris & Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation. In fact, yesterday’s MLB meeting in Virginia was in Pentagon City overlooking the two proposed sites.

But the Cafritz foundation is firmly opposing any mention of its land, located near the intersection of Army-Navy Drive and Eads Street, as the potential home of a future stadium. The foundation has written letters to MLB commissioner Bud Selig, Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, the stadium authority and every MLB team owner asking to be removed from any stadium site list.

Ostertag recently responded to the foundation’s most recent letter, saying only MLB will not be the entity choosing the final new stadium site for the Expos.

Price Legacy Corp., owner of the Costco center, is less hostile to the idea of a stadium on its site. But it would likely insist upon full market value for the land and relocation expenses to move the retail tenants, costs that are likely outside the commonwealth’s proposed $400million stadium financing model.

In another shot to the stadium authority, the Cafritz foundation also is proposing to Arlington County using part of its site as the home of a new convention center the county desperately wants.

For many months, the stadium authority has similarly proposed co-locating a stadium and convention center in Arlington County. Yesterday the authority released a research report saying as much as $31.3million could be shaved from a convention center’s cost if it is built with a ballpark. No decision on a site for that project is expected for at least several months.

The local jurisdictions are due to talk next to the relocation committee by phone early next week.

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