- The Washington Times - Friday, October 1, 2004

D.C. officials yesterday began preparing for the arrival of the Montreal Expos.

Officials spent the day readying stadium legislation for introduction before the D.C. Council today and beginning a public-relations campaign designed to quell dissension over the sweetheart ballpark deal the city made with Major League Baseball.

The mood at the John A. Wilson Building was sober and purposeful yesterday, one day after Major League Baseball (MLB) officials set off a citywide celebration by announcing their plan to relocate the Expos to the District.

“Now the real work begins to make this happen,” said D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams at a press briefing held to review plans for a $435.2 million ballpark in Southeast near the Anacostia River waterfront.

In a matter of weeks, the council must approve a bond issue of up to $500 million for the new ballpark. It must grant the mayor authority to buy land at the ballpark site. Work soon will begin at RFK Stadium, which must be ready to host games by early April.

Perhaps most daunting, D.C. leaders must convince skeptics on the council and in the city of the merits of the stadium financing package. The deal requires neither MLB nor the team’s new owner to pay upfront development costs and leaves much of the risk to the public sector.

D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp, an at-large Democrat who was counted upon by the mayor as a firm vote for baseball, is wavering in her support, said a source close to the council member.

Some community groups are trying to rally opposition to the stadium, calling for organizational meetings and accusing Mr. Williams and baseball proponents of forcing black residents out of the neighborhood.

The mayor rejected critics who say that he gave away too much to MLB and that the stadium is receiving a nine-figure investment while substandard conditions persist at D.C. schools, libraries and parks.

Mr. Williams, in response, touted the economic benefits of baseball in Washington: more than $48 million in non-ballpark spending in the District on items such as hotel rooms and restaurant meals each year and a renaissance of the area around the stadium.

Mr. Williams and other city officials acknowledged that those benefits have not been sufficiently explained, and they are planning meetings with groups around the city to discuss his plans.

“If we want baseball, we’re simply going to have to make an investment,” Mr. Williams said.

The bill that will be sent to the council today calls for revenue bonds for ballpark construction to be paid for with a combination of stadium-related sales taxes ($11 million to $20 million per year), rent payments from the team’s owner ($3.5 million to $5.5 million, growing at 2 percent per year), and a gross-receipts tax on large D.C. businesses ($21 million to $24 million per year).

The rent payments represent about 18 percent of the total cost of the project, a percentage of private-sector investment that is below that of most recent ballpark projects.

The stadium legislation calls for the re-creation of the gross-receipts tax on large businesses that was used to help finance MCI Center; the authorization to issue the stadium bonds; a tax-rate increase for tickets sold at the ballpark to 10 percent from 5.5 percent; and the authorization for the city to acquire property at the stadium site by condemnation.

City officials say they do not want to use the power of eminent domain to acquire land for the stadium. They allotted $65 million to purchase the land, an amount far higher than the assessed value of the property.

However, the power of eminent domain was needed to build both MCI Center and the Washington Convention Center.

The prospects for passage of the stadium bill by the council still appear strong, local baseball proponents say.

Several key figures on the council, including Finance Committee Chairman Jack Evans, support the proposal. And MLB executives closely assessed the political will in the District to accommodate baseball before making its historic decision to relocate the Expos.

Hundreds of angry phone calls, faxes, and e-mails poured into the offices of council members yesterday. Some of those messages came from businesses upset by the return of the gross-receipts tax, though the Greater Washington Board of Trade, Federal City Council and other local trade groups support the measure.

The stadium deal also calls for a $1 donation to the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission for every baseball ticket above 2.4 million that is sold each year. The money would be used for youth recreation programs.

Councilman Adrian Fenty, Ward 4 Democrat and the most vocal opponent to the baseball plan, called the offer “crumbs” from baseball’s table.

“The residents of the District of Columbia have grown tired of this,” Mr. Fenty said. “If you are going to fund baseball, don’t say you are doing it to help children. They are doing it as tokenism.”

A 30-page memorandum of understanding, a document that outlines the terms of the Expos’ relocation, is scheduled to be released today.

The award of the Expos to the District is contingent on the passage of the stadium-financing bill and approval by three-fourths of MLB owners. That vote, seen as a formality, is set for mid-November. A formal RFK Stadium lease for the Expos, soon to be renamed, is due for completion by Jan. 15.

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