- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 7, 2006

Mayor Anthony A. Williams and the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission signed a lease agreement last night approved by Major League Baseball for the Nationals’ new stadium, and council members said they had no plans to disrupt the deal.

The agreement paves the way for construction to begin on the waterfront ballpark in Southeast once the city sells $535 million worth of bonds to finance the project.

Officials yesterday said MLB’s approval of the lease signifies the league’s acceptance of the $611 million cap on the amount of money the city will contribute to the project. The cap was approved by the council 9-4 in emergency legislation passed Feb. 8.

“The cap will be adhered to, period,” said Mark Tuohey, chairman of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission. “Baseball’s agreed to it. The sports commission’s agreed to it.”

With the signatures of MLB and the sports commission, the lease is valid. It will take effect after the city sells bonds to finance the project. That process is expected to last six to eight weeks. D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi issued a letter yesterday certifying the lease, meaning the bond sale can move forward.

One major sticking point appeared to be resolved. MLB had wanted any excess tax revenue to be applied to cost overruns in the construction of the stadium.

Several council members, however, had threatened to kill the deal last week after Williams said he would make available an estimated $20 million in surplus money raised to pay off bonds for the stadium. But council chairman Linda Cropp said that money would be available but only if the council approved it.

“Any time new dollars come into the government, the council must approve the appropriation of the dollars,” Cropp said. “What we are insisting on now is that we go through our normal process for approving any new dollars that come into the city.”

Several council members said they likely would oppose any use of excess funds toward ballpark construction in the future.

“I’m not interested in that conversation,” said Kwame Brown, an at-large Democrat who voted for the cap legislation. “That’s a non-starter for me. That cap is rock solid. It can cost whatever … but this is what we’re going to spend.”

The legislation enacting the $611 million cap calls for cost overruns to be paid for by the new team owner or federal or private contributions.

In its correspondence with the city, MLB has not made any commitment to paying for the stadium other than from a $20 million contribution it agreed to last year. The league did insist, however, on a number of other assurances from the city. It said the lease would be made invalid if the council attempted to enact legislation that was in conflict with the lease.

The league also asked for the D.C. Attorney General to issue a legal opinion affirming the legality of the lease. There were no apparent plans by the council to introduce emergency legislation to change the lease agreement.

Council member Vincent Orange, a Ward 5 Democrat who voted for the cost cap, said MLB’s timing was perfect because it did not allow for the normal 24-hour period to introduce emergency legislation.

“We’re down to the wire,” he said. “Baseball waited for the very last minute — that’s strategic. Baseball didn’t want people to have time to chew it over.”

Members said they likely would vote in favor today of a permanent version of the cap legislation. In addition, they plan to approve an agreement between the city and the stadium construction team to build the ballpark structure for no more than $320 million. Both require only seven votes for approval.

Jack Evans, a Ward 2 Democrat and strong baseball supporter, urged his colleagues to avoid doing anything that would make the lease invalid.

“Based on what I’ve seen, I’m not sure any of this was necessary,” he said. “But baseball wanted to have the last word. My hope is that my colleagues won’t want to have the last word as well. Then it will be like a shoving match between your kids when they are fighting and each wants to have the last word.”

Meanwhile, city officials said they hope to gain possession of about 14 acres of land at the ballpark site as soon as possible. D.C. Superior Court Judge Joan Zeldon said Feb. 24 she would agree to force out landowners at the site once MLB and the city agreed on the lease. The city gained title on most of the land parcels through eminent domain last year.

Clearing the land will be key in the city’s efforts to begin construction on the ballpark in time for completion by Opening Day of 2008.

The stadium construction team, a joint venture led by Clark Construction of Bethesda, said it must have access to the land and begin construction by mid-June or else costs will rise.

“If we get the land very shortly, Clark has said they can do it by April [2008],” said William Hall, chairman of the baseball committee for the sports commission.

If the stadium does not open by then, MLB has agreed to allow opening as late as July 31 without penalty.

A completed lease agreement also allows MLB to announce a new owner for the Nationals. MLB officials were in Japan for the World Baseball Classic and did not respond to inquiries regarding the ownership selection.

MLB officials have said they could name an owner within 30 days of approval of the lease, but it is unclear whether they will wait until the bond funds have been collected. The team is expected to sell for about $450 million.

“Baseball has never done anything on deadline,” Evans said. “We hope they pick an owner in a month. It’s critical because we’ve got to get on this. We’re at the cusp. The fan base is very supportive, but they could turn on us if they don’t get us going.”

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