- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Hometown fans can enjoy America’s pastime in their own back yard next spring.

With the stroke of a pen, D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams yesterday sealed the deal to end the city’s 33-year baseball drought by signing legislation to build the Washington Nationals ballpark in Southeast. “This is one of my proudest days as mayor,” he said.

“I will never regret what we have done here today,” Mr. Williams said at a bill-signing ceremony, where he was flanked by children clad in red, white and blue baseball caps and jerseys — the Nationals colors.

The ceremony culminated three months of political wrangling that nearly lost the team for the city when D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp, who did not attend yesterday’s bill signing, tried to rewrite the mayor’s deal to publicly finance the entire $435.2 million project.

But yesterday, amid cheers from sports fans, all was forgiven.

“We worked through our differences, and I am proud of the bill we signed today,” the mayor said.

The Nationals are scheduled to play their first home game on April 14 against the Arizona Diamondbacks at RFK Stadium, the team’s temporary home until the ballpark near the Anacostia River waterfront is ready in 2008.

Nearly 15,000 season tickets have been sold for the Nationals’ 2005 season.

Major League Baseball (MLB) threatened to call off the relocation of the Montreal Expos to the District after Mrs. Cropp amended the stadium legislation on Dec. 14 to make construction of a ballpark contingent on private investors paying nearly $140 million of the stadium costs.

A week later, with a looming Dec. 31 deadline to finalize the deal, Mrs. Cropp relented to baseball’s demand that the city unconditionally guarantee construction of the 41,000-seat ballpark. For their part, baseball officials agreed to share the insurance premiums to cover cost overruns and reduce the penalty against the District if the ballpark is not ready on time.

The city still is seeking private investors, but $500 million in stadium bonds assures that stadium construction advances with or without private money.

Investors have until Jan. 17 to submit financing plans to the city for review.

Mrs. Cropp’s spokesman said she was out of town yesterday.

“She’s happy [the legislative battle] is over, and she was glad to work with the administration to get the best deal for the city,” said spokesman Mark F. Johnson. “She is glad baseball is on the way home to Washington, D.C.”

Other council members opposed to the ballpark deal were less conciliatory.

“They won,” said council member Jim Graham, a Ward 1 Democrat who originally opposed the public-financing plan, then backed it to get $41 million of stadium funds diverted to libraries, then switched sides again when the library money was stripped from the bill.

Mr. Graham said he remained hopeful that the city would secure some private financing.

“We don’t have that in hand as of yet,” he said. “We will try to work with the reality that has been presented to us.”

Newly elected council members who opposed the stadium deal — such as former Mayor Marion Barry — did not attend the bill signing.

Mr. Williams yesterday stressed that the team and the ballpark will generate hundreds of millions of dollars in benefits for the city, paying for health clinics, recreation centers and police cars and spurring economic development in the downtrodden waterfront area.

“That’s money we don’t have now and money we wouldn’t have without baseball,” Mr. Williams said.

The same message was drowned out during debate of the legislation by a chorus of stadium opponents that said city money would be better spent on the District’s ailing schools and libraries.

According to the legislation, the city will repay the stadium bonds with $5 million annual rent from the team owners, sales tax at the stadium, an extra 1 percent utility tax on nonresidential customers and a gross receipts tax on the city’s largest businesses.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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