- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 30, 2003

Northern Virginia easily holds the seniority edge in pursuing the Montreal Expos. But the area's baseball lobby spent yesterday selling its vision of future baseball in the commonwealth, not the nearly nine hard years already spent chasing a major league team.

A six-person delegation, led by Michael Schewel, Virginia Secretary of Commerce and Trade, met with Major League Baseball's relocation committee for two hours yesterday in New York. The relocation panel strongly stated its desire to see solid site and financing plans for a new stadium, as it did in meetings Tuesday with groups from the District and Portland, Ore.

"This was a very productive session. The process [of moving the Expos] is finally on its way," said Gabe Paul Jr., executive director of the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority. "The committee, obviously, made its focus on financing clear. We talked a lot about both where we are now and where we intend to go [with baseball]."

The Expos are owned and operated by MLB owners, and the relocation committee is leading efforts to sell and move the club. A move in time for the 2004 season is possible, but not certain. The Expos will play 59 of 81 home games in Montreal in 2003, and the rest in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Northern Virginia's efforts to devise a viable stadium financing plan are marked by contrasts. The authority has the power to issue to up to $200 million in bonds to finance a stadium, a measure not currently equaled by other jurisdictions seeking the Expos. But the repayment plan for those bonds first must be approved by the General Assembly. And to date, authority officials have only pinpointed, at most, 60 percent of the funds needed to service those bonds through ballpark-related revenue such as taxes on tickets, parking and ballplayer salaries.

A ballpark in Northern Virginia would be funded at least one third with private money. But with baseball stadiums now typically costing at least $325 million, and routinely much more, a gap perhaps exceeding $100 million exists. And unlike Portland and the District, Northern Virginia has not publicly identified any potential sites for a ballpark.

Authority officials have said they will not go to the General Assembly for the rest of the public-sector funds unless the relocation committee selects Virginia as the Expos' new home. Complicating the issue is a budget crisis in Richmond exceeding $1 billion, one that could take several years to address fully.

"It is still our strong feeling that we need some kind of indication from Major League Baseball, either through a conditional award of a franchise or a firm decision in our favor, before we go back to Richmond," Paul said.

Also representing the Commonwealth yesterday were Virginia Attorney General Jerry Kilgore; authority chairman Michael Frey; James Dyke, a political adviser to the authority; and sports industry consultant Mitchell Ziets. The relocation committee is following the system the NBA recently used to award an expansion franchise to Charlotte, N.C., in which the city and building financing were selected in advance of the franchise owner. As result, no prospective owners are meeting with MLB yet.

Northern Virginia's conference wrapped up two days of initial meetings between the relocation committee and suitors for the Expos. The sessions, by design, were introductory and not driven by negotiations. But each jurisdiction will now be required to develop stadium financing and site plans in time for much more formal meetings with the relocation committee in the early spring.

The authority has hired several consultants to help with various aspects of the upcoming meetings and development of a stadium plan.

Meanwhile, District Mayor Anthony Williams yesterday expressed confidence the city's baseball efforts can still happen without subtracting from existing programs or tax revenues.

"I think we impressed the relocation committee with our focus on business, building a strong cash reserve, having clean audits and doing away with the junk bonds," Williams said.

No other area besides the District, Northern Virginia and Portland is believed to have meetings scheduled with the relocation committee.

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