- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 10, 2004

Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat on the D.C. Council, thought once Major League Baseball cured its well-known intransigence and made a relocation decision on the Montreal Expos, the citywide angst over baseball would finally ebb.

He could not have been more wrong.

Since Major League Baseball announced 11 days ago that the Montreal Expos would move to the District, Mayor Anthony A. Williams and baseball supporters on the council like Evans have faced a surprising and unrelenting wave of attacks from all corners of the city and seemingly all possible demographic and ideological groups.

It has made Evans wonder aloud if the years of gritty work pursuing the Expos was really worth it.

“We finally get the team, and still nobody is happy. It’s the most incredible thing,” Evans said. “It’s almost like I want to call [MLB commissioner] Bud Selig and tell him he can have his team back.”

Evans’ comment about Selig was clearly facetious, but the battle over Williams’ stadium financing plan is no laughing matter. The city’s proposal to finance the entire $435.2million cost of the proposed ballpark in Southeast and revive the gross-receipts tax on large District businesses clearly won over MLB executives, blew away the rival bid from Northern Virginia and presents the best available future for the Expos franchise.

Seemingly few other people, however, are satisfied with the financing plan. A wild mix of entities — ranging from current and incoming city councilmen and black power activists to environmentalists and library advocates — are calling for a repeal of the tightly worded agreement with MLB, Williams’ head or both.

“We’re taking on all the risk,” said David Catania, at-large independent on the council. “That’s not a partnership. This is an affront to the city, and I believe we can negotiate a better deal.”

The backlash caught many city officials off guard, particularly as a majority of the 13-member council is widely believed to support the ballpark financing bill. No stadium development project ever sails through without a hint of controversy, particularly one such as this that calls for just an 18 percent contribution to the total development cost from the private sector. But there was a clear hope that the 33 years of waiting, wishing and hoping for the return of baseball in Washington would grease the wheels of public acceptance.

So where did all this anger come from? Many of the groups opposing baseball are relatively new or have not been prominent figures in this public debate so far. That’s not surprising, considering there was plenty of doubt MLB executives would ever really pull the trigger and move the Expos.

The other half of the unrest, however, lies in a hindsight realization as to how troubled the rival bid from Northern Virginia really was. For months, baseball boosters in the commonwealth insisted Gov. Mark Warner was fully behind the Loudoun County bid, even as a downstate effort in Norfolk clouded his public loyalties.

But instead, the governor was hardening in his resistance to using the moral obligation of Virginia to back bonds for ballpark construction, a mechanism fundamental to the Northern Virginia bid. Warner tried to convince MLB officials on the merits of an alternate financing plan, but that effort was a losing one from the start.

“Baseball had no choice but to go to the District,” one official close to the Northern Virginia bid said recently. “The offer there was simply a better deal.”

That realization, in turn, has led many activists in the city to argue the District was bidding against itself all along and should have struck a more equitable relocation deal with MLB.

There is no renegotiating, however, with baseball. The city’s master Baseball Stadium Agreement is set, and the Expos could end up elsewhere if any of several key steps are not honored — most notably the approval of stadium financing legislation by Dec.31.

What can be done, and is already under way, is local horse trading among the mayor and city council members to make the forthcoming ballpark far more palatable politically. Councilman Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat, was the first to seek a specific change to the baseball package, publicly angling last week to increase the proposed gross-receipts tax rate and earmark the overage for recreation centers and libraries.

But plenty of other potential tweaks are being discussed privately, including the possible creation of a tax-increment financing district around the proposed site in Southeast, with the new funds generated being similarly pegged for libraries and other underfunded social services. Some of the political trades may be more personal, with committee chairmanships forming part of the currency.

It was exactly this type of political bartering that created the Prince George’s Sports & Learning Complex in the shadows of FedEx Field.

“This is a great economic development project that’s in front of us in an ideal location,” Evans said. “But it’s going to be a struggle.”

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