- The Washington Times - Friday, December 17, 2004

D.C. officials are hurriedly seeking a high-level meeting with Major League Baseball executives as a last-ditch attempt to save the city’s imperiled baseball stadium financing package.

No meeting is set, but one could be held as soon as today. While D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams wants to smooth over tension running high over new legislative language that puts the ballpark in jeopardy, D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp maintains a loftier goal of renegotiating key portions of the relocation deal bringing the Montreal Expos to Washington.

“We need to sit down face to face with Major League Baseball and figure out an approach to get accomplished what we want accomplished,” said Mrs. Cropp, who wrote Mr. Williams yesterday formally requesting a meeting with MLB officials.

Four days ago, Mrs. Cropp pushed through a surprise amendment to the ballpark financing. It required that at least 50 percent of the hard costs be paid with private funding, backed by language that voids the entire deal if the condition is not met. Major League Baseball, expecting a total guarantee of the stadium’s completion as written in the relocation pact, angrily responded by calling new terms “wholly unacceptable” and suspending all business operations of the Washington Nationals.

On another significant front, the Williams administration and the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission are seeking to advance as many as four offers of private financing in an attempt to satisfy Mrs. Cropp’s call to lower the city’s investment in the stadium.

There is not enough time for any private proposal to gain full certification from Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi before the city’s Dec.31 deadline to present Major League Baseball with an acceptable and ratified stadium bill. But ballpark advocates are hoping to gain some form of preliminary certification from the CFO’s office that will give Mrs. Cropp enough confidence in the likelihood of private stadium financing to pull back her amendment.

Mrs. Cropp could do that by calling for a reconsideration of her amendment at a City Council hearing scheduled for Tuesday. But she will need to put such a measure on the council’s agenda by 10a.m. Monday.

“The mayor is committed to solving this, Linda Cropp is committed to solving this, and the sports commission is committed to solving this,” said Mark Tuohey, sports commission chairman. “There are people of good faith working hard on this, and I believe it’s going to happen. I truly do.”

Mr. Williams and Mrs. Cropp, who did not speak for more than two days after the council vote, did have two brief conversations yesterday and have planned a formal session Monday morning.

Mr. Tuohey and Mr. Williams declined to provide specifics about the private financing offers under serious consideration. One, however, is likely a recent proposal that involves a curbside parking program around the stadium.

Mrs. Cropp said yesterday she is still pushing for Major League Baseball and the Nationals to assume a greater and more defined share of stadium cost overruns should they occur.

“I could have stopped this deal if I wanted to vote with the other six [council members] who voted against this,” Mrs. Cropp said. “I did not do that. I have left the door open for baseball to come to the District of Columbia but at a lower cost.”

MLB executives said yesterday they were not aware of any upcoming, face-to-face meetings with D.C. officials but have maintained steady contact this week with Mr. Tuohey and members of the Williams administration.

“Am I willing to modify the deal while remaining true to the basic agreement [with Major League Baseball], and do I think there’s room to do that? Yes,” Mr. Williams said. “There are a number of different options here.”

If Mrs. Cropp does not put a reconsideration of her amendment on the agenda for Tuesday’s council meeting, she has not ruled out the possibility of suspending the City Council’s holiday recess and scheduling another hearing for the final week of December.

Meanwhile, the Greater Washington Board of Trade and the Washington Baseball Club yesterday both sent out strongly worded e-mail messages to their members and supporters imploring them to contact Mrs. Cropp in the coming days and press hard for a resolution to the standoff with Major League Baseball. The D.C. Business Coalition sent a similar letter to Mr. Williams, Mrs. Cropp and MLB Commissioner Bud Selig.

“The faith and credit of the District of Columbia now hangs in the balance,” reads the alert from the Board of Trade. “Reneging on the city’s negotiated agreement with Major League Baseball will send a chilling message to developers, CEOs and entrepreneurs across the U.S. and the world.”

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