- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 12, 2003

With Major League Baseball perhaps closer than ever to returning to Washington, local residents last night voiced significant support for Mayor Anthony Williams' belief that baseball would represent a major economic driver for the area.

But Williams' developing stadium financing plan a public-sector effort worth up to $275 million employing a variety of ballpark-related taxes fell on much tougher ears.

"This plan is a bunch of ifs," said Janet Brown, a four-decade resident of the District and local activist, during a baseball forum attended by more than 150 people. "If the people come, if we get the ability to tax the players. If, if, if. There's very little certainty here."

Many suburban residents said there were no ifs in their bringing new money into the District, despite a legion of economic studies that show the aggregate economic effects from sports facilities as rather negligible.

"I, for one, will take great pleasure making the trip downtown from the suburbs to a new stadium," said Steve Bernstein of Olney.

The divided public comments come more than a week before a District contingent led by Williams leads a delegation to Phoenix for a crucial meeting with MLB's relocation committee. The committee, charged with finding a new home for the MLB-owned Montreal Expos, will also meet with leaders from Portland, Ore., and Northern Virginia late next week. A relocation decision is expected by mid-summer, but a move in time for the 2004 season is not guaranteed. The committee is planning site visits to the three candidate jurisdictions for the spring.

The District baseball bid is led by three site possibilities: near the intersection of New York and Florida Avenues NE, the RFK Stadium property and near M Street SE.

The New York Avenue site is the clear favorite among Williams, prospective team owner Fred Malek and many prominent City Council members, given the area's emerging redevelopment and a forthcoming Metro stop there.

The city's proposed stadium financing package aims to draw tax revenue from ballpark-related commerce such as ticket sales and parking, player salaries and a return of the gross-receipts tax on large businesses used to finance MCI Center's infrastructure.

District officials aim to draw between $20 million and $27 million a year from those sources, enough to support a municipal bond between $275 million and $415 million at current interest rates. A significant private sector contribution is also expected for a new stadium, projected to cost between $342.3 million and $430.7 million, depending on which site is selected.

Williams and the City Council have vowed not to have a baseball stadium siphon existing money from the general fund. And District officials insisted the financing plan is not only solid but would provide roughly 1.5 times the actual money needed to service a bond.

"The idea is to be very prudent, guard against down years and have more money that strictly would be needed to make the bond payments," said Steve Green, a special assistant in the city office of planning and economic development. "The bond requirements mandate it, and it makes sense."

Actually creating such a financing package, however, will require several policy changes. The city's current Home Rule charter does not permit taxation of non-resident incomes, and City Council leaders want to see an engaged lobby from the business sector for a return of the gross-receipts tax. Williams staffers hope to see the gross-receipts tax legislation introduced to a Council bill next month.

Last night's public forum was the fourth to be held by District officials in less than a year, and feedback from the prior sessions has proved influential. At a packed session in October, public sentiment weighed heavily against locating a stadium at Mount Vernon Square, long the center of the city's baseball dreams.

Less than four months after that meeting, Williams quietly dropped Mount Vernon Square from the site options, citing both heavy costs and citizen opposition.

The District's ballpark effort is based on a model assuming 41,000 seats, 90 luxury suites, 2000 club seats, 1,100 on-site parking space, and 6,500 total parking spaces within a 15-minute walk of the stadium.

Another public forum, involving the same presentation of data as last night, will be held tomorrow starting at 6 p.m. at Reeves Municipal Center in Northwest.

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