- The Washington Times - Monday, March 6, 2006

Major League Baseball and city officials are expected to submit documentation to the D.C. Council today approving a lease agreement for the Washington Nationals’ new ballpark as well as a cap of $611 million on the city’s cost for the project.

MLB’s agreement to the cost cap and lease means construction on the stadium can move forward once the city sells $535 million worth of bonds to finance the project.

However, the agreement comes with a number of conditions, including that the lease not be in effect until the city begins selling the bonds to cover the stadium costs and that the council not enact any legislation contrary to the agreement it passed last month.

“We have worked very hard to accommodate the requests from [District Mayor Anthony A. Williams] and the council that changed the terms of the agreement that brought the Expos to Washington,” MLB President Bob DuPuy said. “Because we believe in the future of baseball in the nation’s capital, we have signed a lease that honors the 2004 agreement while conforming to the emergency legislation that the council passed last month.”

The signed lease was delivered to an attorney for the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission yesterday afternoon with a letter listing MLB’s requirements for the lease to become legally binding.

The agreement bringing the Nationals franchise to the District, approved by the council in December 2004, stipulated that all costs for the team’s stadium must be borne by the city. But the council refused to approve a lease agreement for the project last fall until MLB agreed to more concessions. In January, the parties hired a mediator to help end the dispute, with MLB agreeing to contribute additional tickets for low-income students and build a baseball academy in Southeast.

Also, the city struck a deal with the stadium construction team to build the ballpark for a fixed price. Despite those concessions, the council insisted that a hard cap be placed on the city’s expenditure for the project, with any overruns paid for by the team owner, contributions from the federal government or private sources or through savings on the construction of the stadium structure.

In MLB’s acceptance of the lease agreement and cap, it does not indicate whether it will pay for any stadium costs aside from the $20 million it agreed to contribute last fall.

Council member Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat and ardent baseball supporter, said MLB’s conditions were “at least to be something [the council] can work through. I think we have the makings of a deal here and can make that work.”

After a whirlwind series of votes Feb. 8, the council passed a stadium lease agreement 9-4, contingent on MLB’s acceptance of a cap on the city’s costs for the project at $611 million. The council’s deadline for league approval was today.

“We’re delighted, and I’m betting millions of Nats fans are, too,” said Vincent Morris, a spokesman for Mr. Williams. “This clears one of the last hurdles in the process and gets us ready to finally break ground on a ballpark.”

Tomorrow, the council will vote on whether to make the emergency legislation approved last month permanent. The council is expected to approve the legislation 9-4, with the same council members voting “no” as before.

The four council members who have not publicly expressed support for the new deal are Jim Graham, David A. Catania, Adrian M. Fenty and Phil Mendelson.

“I urge the city to accept this compromise,” Mr. DuPuy said. “We all have worked long and hard, and it’s time to give the Nationals a new stadium and a strong future by bringing this matter to a successful close.”

MLB’s requirement that the council not pass any legislation contrary to the lease it approved last month heads off a possibility that the body will vote against the agreement tomorrow. That speculation was incited last week when Mr. Williams proposed using $20 million in excess baseball revenue to pay for potential cost overruns in construction of the ballpark.

The proposal met stiff opposition from some council members because the proposal would essentially circumvent the $611 million funding cap, some said.

If the council seeks to block the deal, MLB likely would file for arbitration, a lengthy process that could expose the city to millions of dollars in damages.

Council members yesterday were relieved to hear MLB had signed the agreement.

“Thank God,” said Vincent C. Gray, Ward 7 Democrat who had fought to improve the deal with baseball. “I’m not really ready to make a comment until I’ve seen [the agreement], but it’s about time.”

Mr. Graham, Ward 1 Democrat who voted against the lease agreement, said MLB had no choice but to sign off on the deal.

“My reaction is they’re very smart people,” he said. “I don’t think it was an under-proposal. I think they had the best and final offer.”

D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi said last month that he would be able to sell $535 million worth of bonds to finance the stadium once the league and city reached an agreement. Obtaining the money could take as long as six weeks.

A finalized agreement also would mean that the city can gain possession of the land necessary to begin construction and that MLB can announce a new owner for the team.

• Mark Zuckerman contributed to this report.

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