Thursday, July 24, 2003

The Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority last night said it will defy a request from Arlington County seeking to remove the jurisdiction from all ballpark site consideration. By leaving two potential sites in Pentagon City and a third in Rosslyn on the authority’s short list, the ballpark debate that has raged through Arlington County for most of this year promises to remain hot.

“We’re still not ruling anything out,” said Michael Frey, stadium authority chairman. “We need to do our job. Arlington County has asked to be removed before we’ve finished our job, but we need to keep doing our job.”

The move comes a week after the Arlington County Board made its stunning decision to remove the county from any further ballpark site consideration. After more than six months sitting on the fence on the issue, board members made the move after Major League Baseball missed a self-appointed deadline to determine the future of the Montreal Expos by the July 15 All-Star Game.

The decision severely weakened the commonwealth’s baseball bid, as it seemed to eliminate a proposed ballpark site in Pentagon City, currently owned by Morris & Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation and coveted by the authority.

But not only do Virginia baseball advocates vow to press ahead, they see wiggle room in the board’s decision since it came in the form of a letter to the stadium authority, and not an official vote.

“The [stadium] process really hasn’t begun,” said prospective team owner William Collins. “We haven’t bought land. We haven’t filed a zoning application. Nothing has really started, and that all changes when baseball makes it [relocation] decision.”

After missing the All-Star break to render a decision on the Expos’ future, MLB officials are now targeting a period between late August and the end of the season.

Despite the continued optimism, and some might say bravado, from the Virginia baseball advocates, the Arlington County Board appears similarly resolved. Paul Ferguson, board chairman, said yesterday any current and forthcoming lobbying efforts for an Arlington County stadium will be for naught.

“Our position hasn’t changed, nor will it change,” Ferguson said. “I can firmly say the position of the board is not reversible. We put a lot of effort and thought into this decision, and the whole idea was to provide some certainty into what has been an uncertain and divisive situation.”

The board is now entering negotiations with the Cafritz Foundation and its business partners to build a conference center on the foundation-owned Pentagon City property. A mixed-use development also has been proposed for another portion of that land.

The stadium authority and Virginia Baseball Club, led by Collins, are now planning a grassroots effort to convey their belief a stadium will better a conference center not only on economics, but also when considering impact upon public services and overall quality of life. Virginians for Baseball, a local fan group, is planning a protest before the next Arlington County Board meeting Tuesday.

The authority is also finishing up economic and traffic impact studies that likely will have some comparison between the proposed mixed-use and conference development center on the Cafritz site and a ballpark.

“We want to make Paul Ferguson eat his letter,” said Kevin Appel, president of Virginians for Baseball. “This was an act of political cowardice. He wanted this issue to go away, but it’s not going to.”

Besides the three proposed Arlington sites, the stadium authority is also considering a fourth spot near Dulles International Airport and a fifth in Springfield. Neither of those sites, however, has willing political cooperation or accessible mass transit. As a result, they are considered less attractive options, and the Cafritz land has been and remains the focus of stadium authority attention.

The ongoing baseball debate in Northern Virginia extends a rather unsettled period within the local baseball bids. Over recent weeks, officials in both the District and Northern Virginia have demanded some guarantee of the Expos from baseball before finishing ballpark site and financing efforts. Jack Evans, chairman of the D.C. Council finance committee, made that position clear in particularly bold terms.

The Arlington County Board decision extended that stance another step forward. Without any indication from baseball on the Expos’ future, political leaders simply took their future into their own hands.

But MLB executives continue to demand a solid stadium package, complete with heavy public-sector participation. Bob DuPuy, MLB President, said last week the Expos will be moved when “the moon, the stars, the sun and the dollars are all aligned.” As a result, most industry insiders expect a heavy schedule for the team in Puerto Rico in 2004.

Members of baseball’s relocation committee are expected to brief MLB Commissioner Bud Selig within days on their progress to date. An owners meeting is tentatively set for next month in Boston, where some movement on the Expos’ plight is possible.

“It’s funny. The owners look at this whole thing as a business. The players look at this as a business. But they’re surprised when communities do the same thing,” said one local baseball source. “Jack Evans surprised the [relocation] committee. And I think the Arlington bit did, too.”

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