Virginia’s lobby for Major League Baseball in the commonwealth continues to press MLB officials for a team despite a projected budget deficit of $3.5 billion through 2004, easily the state’s worst fiscal crisis in a decade.
Gov. Mark Warner, Democrat, wrote MLB commissioner Bud Selig late Monday reiterating his commitment for baseball in Virginia, and groups in both Richmond and Northern Virginia are busily reworking the financial models for a new stadium.
Previous stadium plans for baseball in Virginia called for a $300 million ballpark, funded roughly one-third by an investor group led by telecommunications executive William Collins, one-third by Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority (VBSA) bonds paid off by taxes on stadium-generated revenue and player salaries, and one-third by state lottery proceeds.
The lottery funds, however, were cut off by the State Legislature in 2000 for all purposes except for education, and the new budget crisis has intensified an ongoing scramble to replace that last third. VBSA officials do not plan to present any new stadium financing proposals before the legislature prior to January 2003. But while that search for money is ongoing and baseball inches ever closer to relocating one or more of its troubled franchises, Warner’s letter was intended to remind MLB officials the budget crisis has not deterred Virginia’s desire for baseball.
“I give you my commitment that I will do everything I can to help form a fiscally responsible public-private partnership to make baseball in Virginia a reality,” Warner wrote.
The letter marks Warner’s most direct statement yet on baseball in his short term as governor. No one in Virginia expects it will change Selig’s mind on relocation in the short term. The commissioner opposes any team moves before a new labor deal is struck with the players, despite saying earlier this month that relocation was coming “much, much sooner than later,” and that the Washington area was a “prime candidate” for a team. MLB is expected to announce this week its takeover of the Montreal Expos.
But Gabe Paul, VBSA executive director, said it was important to let baseball know of Warner’s recent entry into office and his status as a former member of Collins’ investor group. That message was reiterated in meetings yesterday with Corey Busch, MLB’s point man on relocation.
“This is no disrespect to [former] Governor [James} Gilmore, but Governor Warner, I think, has a greater knowledge and understanding of the impact baseball would have on Virginia, and I think it’s good to restate our commitment to this,” he said.
Paul and members of Collins’ group said a variety of financing alternatives are being considered, and Ron Tillett, former Virginia secretary of finance, was recently hired to help in that search. Nothing has been publicly identified to date, but sources said some type of sin or restaurant taxes may be considered to help fund the stadium construction. The groups are seeking a final choice or choices to be decided upon internally by this spring. Warner has talked loosely of creating a plan in which the public-sector contribution is strictly limited to the VBSA bonds paid by stadium revenues, but questions remain on that plan’s viability.
“When Governor Warner says ‘fiscally responsible,’ I take that as a challenge upon us to find a solution that will reap an economic benefit to the state, a return that will exceed their investment,” said Mike Scanlon, spokesman for the Collins group.
Neither the Collins group nor the VBSA has identified a preferred site for a new stadium.
Warner, making a tour of several local media outlets yesterday, said Collins’ group and a rival District-based one led by financier Fred Malek should merge. Malek and Collins are on friendly terms, but any meaningful discussion of a merger has broken down over each group’s firm commitment to locating the team in their jurisdiction. Warner repeated as much in his letter to Selig.
“It is clear that a location in Northern Virginia, the region’s economic hub, will best position the team to take full advantage of the market’s promise and operate as a successful business, as well as a winning team,” Warner wrote.
The District’s preliminary financial model for a stadium there calls for as much as $200 million in public-sector contributions, much of it through tax credits, and a similar amount to come from private sources, primarily the Malek group. The public sector money would require City Council approval.