- The Washington Times - Friday, May 27, 2005

After a five-month search for private financing for the Washington Nationals’ planned stadium in Southeast, District officials are now virtually certain to stick with the existing, ratified funding plan using city bonds.

The D.C. Council has canceled a finance committee markup set for Wednesday on legislation to incorporate private financing into the ballpark project, as well as a planned June 7 vote on the bill by the full legislative body. Jack Evans, finance committee chairman, held two hearings on the bill earlier this month. But subsequent to those sessions, council members could not come close to rallying around any one financing plan.

“There’s nothing to mark up,” Evans said. “Unless something changes, there’s nothing that appeals to everybody. Opinion is all over the lot.”

The lack of approval of a private financing plan does not threaten the ballpark’s construction. Legislation approved in December mandated a formal search for private funds and then a recommendation by Mayor Anthony A. Williams of at least one private financing plan that had received certification from Natwar Gandhi, District chief financial officer.

But after those steps were fulfilled, the council was not compelled to act on the issue. The new stadium, targeted by Gandhi to cost $607 million, is slated for a March 2008 completion near the Anacostia River waterfront.

The council debated several competing financing plans, including a $246 million debt financing package from Deutsche Bank and a complex offer from a group calling itself D.C. Baseball Stadium Associates (DCBSA) employing debt, equity investment and depreciation tax credits. Council chairman Linda Cropp, who led the quest for private financing as a means to lower the city’s investment in the ballpark, in particular held several meetings with DCBSA executives. And both Williams and Gandhi endorsed the Deutsche Bank offer.

But a case compelling enough to veer away from the existing financial structure has not been made, city officials said, particularly as the current council is much more hostile to baseball than the one that approved the original stadium financing.

In each instance, the offers of private financing sought something significant in return, whether it be land development rights, interest rates higher than what the city could obtain on its own, or structuring fees to arrange the financing.

To that end, Evans and others opined for months there was no such thing as true private financing in the absence of the Nationals offering to fund part of the stadium construction. Instead, Major League Baseball, which currently owns the club, mandated a fully financed stadium as a prerequisite for moving the Montreal Expos.

A spokesman for Cropp, however, disputed the notion that the lack of action on private stadium financing represents a political loss for the chairman. Cropp proclaimed for months that private financing was a viable and needed option for the ballpark.

“[Cropp] doesn’t feel like this is a bad thing or that this was a waste of time,” said Mark Johnson, her spokesman. “There was a good-faith effort put forth.”

District bonds for the ballpark are due to be issued in the early fall, and the council recesses for two months in July, leaving little time for a reversal of course.

Vince Morris, Williams’ spokesman, said the mayor was disappointed the council could not agree on a private financing plan but insisted the ballpark project remained on track.

Under the original financing plan, the District is set to finance the entire project, with the debt paid off using ballpark-related sales taxes, annual lease payments from the Nationals, a gross-receipts tax on large District businesses and a utility tax on city businesses and federal government entities.

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