- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 31, 2003

Local frustration with Major League Baseball is rising and momentum to close a deal wavering with perhaps just weeks to go before baseball makes a decision on a permanent home for the orphaned Montreal Expos.

Major League Baseball (MLB) last month delayed a decision on the future of the franchise, providing the District, Northern Virginia and Portland, Ore., more time to resolve difficult questions regarding the location and financing of a new ballpark.

But in the District, the delay also created an anxiety-filled political clash of egos and a financing scenario that now is more unsettled than ever.

District officials are grappling with a second financing proposal to fund $338.7million in public-sector contributions toward a stadium. The new proposal, relying foremost on refinancing debt on the new Washington Convention Center, may be joined by others in coming weeks.

But through the simmering summertime ballpark debate, two key questions remain:

• Is the local baseball effort truly going anywhere, particularly given baseball’s ongoing delays to settle the Expos matter?

• If progress is being made, whose stamp will be foremost on the public sector work necessary to close the deal?

“I think everybody is [frustrated],” District Mayor Anthony Williams told WTOP-AM yesterday. “Absolutely. I think you’re already seeing some frustration, and people saying we don’t want to make any more commitments until we get a declaration of support from baseball and a sign that this is the site from baseball.

“I think you’re already seeing some sense of anxiety and frustration.”

Williams’ comments echoed those made earlier this week by Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, who said that baseball’s delay threatens to leave MLB executives with “no suitor at the end of the day.” After a decade of pursuing a team, Northern Virginia’s effort essentially has collapsed in the face of opposition from local government and landowners.

MLB executives initially planned to announce a decision on the Expos by July’s All-Star break. They now are eyeing a period between late August and the end of the season. An owners meeting in two weeks could provide additional direction.

The latest financing proposal in the District continues a long-running battle of wills and ego between Williams and the D.C. Council. Since Williams introduced the Ballpark Revenue Amendment Act of 2003 nearly three months ago, criticism among council members has been heavy.

Despite a general desire to return baseball to the city, council members remain troubled by a proposal to again levy a gross receipts tax on large District businesses. The local corporate community has openly embraced reintroducing the tax, which was used to fund the MCI Center infrastructure. But finance committee chairman Jack Evans, facing re-election next year, and others remain unconvinced.

The latest plan, presented by District Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi to other city officials earlier this week, moves away from the gross receipts tax, as well as increased ballpark-related sales and use taxes to finance the stadium. Instead, its primary mechanism is refinancing convention center bonds to a lowest interest rate, as well as funneling profits from a city-owned convention center hotel to the stadium.

The idea is not new; it was championed earlier this year by Republican councilman David Catania. But Steve Green, special assistant to the mayor and a lead author of the Ballpark Revenue Amendment Act, at the time dismissed the idea as both logistically difficult and not financially rewarding enough to pursue.

That sentiment was backed yesterday by Williams. The Convention Center Board also opposes the proposal.

Additionally, the Gandhi plan counters a desire on the part of both the mayor and council not to use general funds for the ballpark.

“My understanding has always been that [refinancing the convention center debt for a stadium] doesn’t work, because the baseball stadium would be considered a project separate and apart from the convention center itself,” Williams said. “Therefore, the proceeds from the financing couldn’t be used [for a ballpark].”

But the council, particularly Evans — whose committee is now holding up the Williams bill — continues to challenge Williams and his staff.

“Both sides want to the be the author of the bill that brought baseball back to D.C.,” said one local political insider.

Local baseball advocates, however, see a positive in the ongoing political machinations: a way to keep baseball closer to the front burner during the summer doldrums and a council recess that lasts until mid-September.

“I have a lot of questions about this idea. And I don’t like how Mr. Gandhi just threw this out there without consulting all the involved parties,” said councilman Harold Brazil, who met yesterday with convention center officials to discuss the proposal. “But this whole discussion about people considering different ways to do this deal pre-assumes they want to see baseball.”

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