- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 19, 2003

Northern Virginia’s efforts to land a major league baseball team are now in disarray following a decision late Thursday by the Arlington County Board that removes the jurisdiction from ballpark site consideration.

The Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority, the lead entity for the commonwealth’s baseball efforts, will continue to seek and develop a ballpark site. But with the board position, stiff resistance from landowners and community activists, and the lack of extensive public transportation outside Arlington County, a workable alternative is not evident.

“I don’t think we know [what the next move is],” said authority vice chairman Keith Frederick. “This clearly has hurt. There are not other site options that I know of.”

After more than six months of sitting on the fence on the ballpark issue, the Arlington County Board made its surprising decision late Thursday night during a closed session to discuss efforts to build a new conference center in the county. Since two of three prospective sites for the conference center are also eyed by the stadium authority — including the site owned by the Morris & Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation in Pentagon City that is most coveted by Virginia baseball advocates — the conversation quickly dovetailed into baseball.

And in a letter sent to the stadium authority, Arlington County said it has tired of the continued indecision from Major League Baseball and its relocation committee, as well as the strong local divisions the unresolved saga of the MLB-owned Montreal Expos has created. A third factor in the board’s decision was money, as a conference center and mixed-use development proposed for the Cafritz land is estimated to generate as much as $10.5million in annual taxes for the county.

Much of the immediate tax revenue from a ballpark, conversely, over its initial 30 years of use would revert to the stadium authority to pay construction debt. Based on all those factors, the Arlington board also voted to begin negotiations with Cafritz site landowners on co-developing a conference center.

Meanwhile, MLB’s relocation committee missed its initial target of having some resolution on the Expos by the July15 All-Star Game, and baseball executives are now targeting late August and the end of the season to render a decision.

“It is time for Arlington County to move on,” said Paul Ferguson, Arlington County Board chairman. “We were willing to let an application for a ballpark come forward. We were not willing for this to be an open-ended uncertainty that continues to divide the county. MLB had its opportunity to relocate to Arlington County. For those who worked diligently on this issue, I’m sorry you got jerked around by baseball.”

Ferguson later added that “MLB has paid the price for its decision.”

The Arlington County decision, at least for the moment, has only magnified that community’s division, which had openly raged for months.

Many ballpark proponents derided the decision, made in closed session and without public debate. The closed session was permitted because it was ostensibly to consider the conference center proposal and such closed discussion is permitted on matters of land acquisition.

One Arlington resident connected to the authority called the decision “cowardly.”

A statement from the Virginia Baseball Club, led by William Collins, went much further, typifying Collins’ outgoing, emotional nature. The club called the decision “hasty” and a county-commissioned economic study favoring the Cafritz mixed-use plan over a ballpark “biased propaganda intended to prop up plans of the District of Columbia’s developers.

“The plan to build ten 20-story rental buildings, housing well more than 8,000 people, will create a congestion and density nightmare 365 days a year, the likes of which the County has never seen,” a statement from the club reads.

“The Board’s reasons [for withdrawal on baseball], as stated in its letter to the VBSA, also lack credence and credibility.”

Ballpark opponents, however, saw the decision as a fitting comeuppance for the stadium authority. The public body also does much of its work in closed session, using commonwealth law that allows closed meetings on real estate matters to maximum effect.

Gabe Paul Jr., authority executive director, said yesterday none of the five proposed ballpark sites have been either removed from the list or formally recommended for development.

But on top of the Arlington County decision covering three proposed locations, a fourth proposed site near the Engineering Proving Grounds in Springfield has met with firm resistance from the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.

A fifth spot, located near Dulles International Airport, has an owner similarly hostile to the idea of the land being used for a stadium and no accessible mass transit.

“We’re still making plans and we remain very optimistic,” Paul said. “I can understand the frustration of the board. But this is not a land use application. We are not there yet. And it’s important to remember that the tax money generated by the ballpark that would be used for the [construction] bonds are just the tip of the iceberg. There’s a lot more economic spinoff from this.”

The commonwealth, as well as Arlington County, do have the power of eminent domain to take land. The willingness of Virginia officials to use it, however, is unclear, particularly if it overrides the wishes of local authorities. Ferguson said yesterday he would oppose any eminent domain request for a ballpark.

Jack Ritchie, president of the H Street Building Corp. and a partner with the Cafritz Foundation in the Pentagon City mixed-use project, cheered the Arlington County decision.

“Obviously, we are pleased the county board recognizes the owners of the site are not interested in negotiating for the use of that land for a ballpark,” Ritchie said. “We have other plans, as the county knows, and feel those plans are far more beneficial for the county.”

John McHale, MLB vice president of administration and a key figure on the relocation committee, said he is awaiting a full briefing on the matter from stadium authority officials. Some contact between the two sides on the matter already has occurred.

“This will be something the [baseball] proponents will need to address, analyze and explain,” McHale said. “If this is something that is important, it will be fully conveyed to us.”

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