- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 19, 2002

A new District-based baseball stadium will not be financed in any way using general fund revenues from the D.C. government, City Council members Harold Brazil and Jack Evans said yesterday.

The statement is not altogether surprising as city officials recently made cuts to close a $323million budget gap for next year, and financier Fred Malek, head of a District-based bid group for baseball, has never sought general fund money for a stadium. But the comment, along with bullish support from both Brazil and Evans for seeking a team, represents the strongest and most significant stance by the City Council in Washington's long pursuit to bring back baseball.

"We're not talking about going into the [taxpayer] till for a stadium," Brazil said. A new Washington ballpark is projected to cost between $342million and $542million. "We're talking about using our heads, coming up with something creative and tapping into revenues that would not be here without baseball."

Evans, head of the council's finance committee, and Brazil, head of its economic development committee, yesterday held a joint panel to wrestle with site and financing options for a team in the city. The meeting, attended by more than 100 people and lasting in excess of three hours, marked the City Council's first serious look at baseball. Prior to yesterday, Mayor Anthony Williams, the Malek group and the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission had led all discussions with MLB executives concerning a new District baseball club.

The session was an early step of what promises to be a hasty and critical process. Major League Baseball has formed a committee to relocate the league-owned Montreal Expos in time for the 2004 season, with a decision due by early July. And that committee last week notified government officials in the District, Northern Virginia and Portland, Ore., that it will soon schedule formal meetings for the early spring allowing each jurisdictions to make its definitive pitch for baseball.

Rather than invite prospective ownership groups, the sessions will only be for government representatives, with the aim of determining each area's real ability to support a ballpark development and a team. And the City Council, as Washington's legislative body, must sign off on any public financing measure for a new stadium.

"When you put together the cost of the franchise, renovating RFK Stadium for near-term baseball use and the new stadium itself, you're talking about a bill between $700million and $800million," Evans said. "Now a lot of that will be borne by the private [investors]. That's still a lot of money. We have experience doing projects of this side. We've put together financing for projects a lot bigger than a baseball stadium. So the question now is 'Where does the rubber hit the road?'"

Though it appears District officials have less than three months to piece together a fairly solid stadium financing plan, firm details remain elusive. But using that guiding principle of no general fund monies, both Brazil and Evans favor financing measures used most recently for the forthcoming D.C. Convention Center and infrastructure for MCI Center, as well as ones created solely for a new ballpark.

Such measures include a special baseball lottery, taxes on tickets and the salaries of visiting ballplayers, and tax-increment financing, which allows developers to pay off city-issued bonds with future tax revenues.

The Malek group, while never offering a hard number, has long said it is committed to paying "its fair share" toward a new stadium. On top of the group estimated net worth of $2 billion, private financing options available to them or any other team owner include turning fixed annual revenues such as stadium naming rights and luxury seat contracts into securities that would provide up-front funding for ballpark development.

Yesterday's session which featured testimony from sports commission officials, Deputy Mayor Eric Price and more than a dozen other business leaders, land-use specialists and private citizens both for and against a stadium project also wrestled heavily with the proper site for a District-based stadium.

A recent report from the sports commission and the Malek group identified five candidates: the RFK Stadium property, two spots along Massachusetts Avenue NW between Mount Vernon Square and Union Station, a location near the Southeast Federal Center and District waterfront, and land north of Union Station near New York Avenue NE.

A site closest to Mount Vernon Square has long been informally preferred among local baseball boosters, but Evans said he ideally would like to see the ballpark placed in an area less obviously primed for development, allowing to be a catalyst like MCI Center for collateral development.

"Mount Vernon is already going to develop up further in all probability. At RFK, I don't see potential for a lot of additional development," Evans said. "So with the other three sites, is it a case of their being something in between that might be better? That's the question."

Additional Council discussions on baseball will be held in the next few weeks as the city hurriedly develops its best proposal for baseball.

"The city's next steps will be crucial and the work will be hard," said John Richardson, sports commission chairman. "But all indications are positive and we feel like we are closer than ever."

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