- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Mayor Anthony A. Williams told Major League Baseball exactly what it wanted to hear: the District would fully fund a new ballpark if it was awarded a team.

However, Williams’ proposal raised new questions about the District’s pursuit of a team even as it considerably upped the ante for the city.

Williams last week said he would submit to MLB a proposal to build a $340million ballpark on the grounds of RFK Stadium and pay for it with tax dollars.

The goal was to end delay at MLB on a decision on the fate of the Montreal Expos — the franchise the District is trying to land — and bring to a close years of fruitless, frustrating effort by groups in the area get a team.

However, Williams’ plan does not guarantee baseball will return to the District. Some key questions remain:

Nowhere but RFK?

The District is proposing four sites to MLB’s relocation committee: the RFK Stadium property, M Street Southeast, New York Avenue Northeast and the current home of Benjamin Banneker Park in Southwest.

The Williams Administration and a prospective ownership group led by financier Fred Malek prefer the three downtown sites to RFK Stadium, and they like the New York Avenue site in particular.

It’s not hard to understand why. The best modern ballparks — Coors Field in Denver and Jacobs Field in Cleveland, for example — help revive adjacent downtown areas. That was the case with MCI Center, which aided the expansion of Washington’s downtown to the east.

RFK, conversely, is surrounded by parking lots and residential neighborhoods, presenting less obvious potential for spinoff commercial growth.

But a ballpark at RFK, with a projected cost of $340 million, presents no sticky land ownership issues and already has transportation infrastructure. That makes it by far the cheapest and most viable option.

The D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission insists any of the four sites can be financed without private funds, and it has worked the past several months to reduce the projected costs of a stadium and to tweak financing proposals.

The commission’s most recent cost estimates for the three downtown sites now top out at $385 million and are dangerously low, judging by recent precedent in baseball.

The Banneker site calls for building a portion of the ballpark hanging over Interstate 395, a situation believed to be without architectural or engineering precedent for a major outdoor stadium. The city does not own all the land it would need for the M Street and New York Avenue sites and would be required to assemble a stadium plot through myriad landowners.

Further, the cost of six of the last 10 baseball stadiums built exceeded $400 million when all land expenses and cost overruns were included. The two newest parks, in Philadelphia and San Diego, each topped $450 million.

The city does have power of eminent domain to aid its efforts, but the commission’s cost estimates appear to leave little room for any extended legal challenges.

Can agreement be reached?

So if RFK is a much more workable site, why the vast disagreement among city officials?

The short answer is that ego is running rampant through the local baseball effort. Williams clearly wants the return of baseball to D.C. to be part of his political legacy, and he wants the process concluded as soon as possible. That easily could apply to much of the D.C. Council and the sports commission. And where there is ego, there is disagreement.

There were months of tension between the Council, sports commission and Malek’s group that stemmed in large part from the Council’s displeasure over spending by the sports commission. That iciness only recently thawed.

The District still wants some assurance that baseball will be returned to the city before it will consider any formal ballpark legislation, and several members of the D.C. Council have vowed to fight a public-sector expenditure for a baseball stadium.

But if the Expos are indeed moving to Washington, there will be very few, if any, politicians willing to be known as a roadblock to the cause.

And, for all their disagreements, District officials still agree on one thing: baseball belongs here — something that separates them from their counterparts in other cities vying for the Expos. It’s a major difference, and why the District has remained front and center in any relocation discussion of the Expos.

What about Northern Virginia?

In the commonwealth, the primary question is what it has been for years: where is the stadium going to go? William Collins III, head of a prospective ownership group in Northern Virginia, recently told NewsChannel 8 that he’s essentially given up on putting a stadium in Arlington County, which has formally rebuked baseball in its jurisdiction.

Officials from the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority insist Arlington is still on the table, but like Collins, have acknowledged for weeks that a search for new stadium sites is under way. Those new locations almost certainly will be further away from the Metro system and invite more traffic problems. The authority also must now share some of its time and effort with the rival Norfolk bid.

It’s a sad situation, given the more than 10 years of yeoman-like work Collins and his partners have done. The local area owes a debt of gratitude toward Collins for putting greater Washington back on baseball’s radar. But if the Virginia effort does not land the Expos this year, the authority will cease and the work will be for naught.

The authority is working on a potentially interesting wrinkle: the inclusion of private developers into a stadium development. While not the full public financing MLB demands, the work in progress may propose to not siphon any ownership money away from the Expos purchase price, which is baseball’s true endgame.

What happens now?

It’s been more than two years since baseball commissioner Bud Selig pronounced Washington a “prime candidate” for relocation, and local patience is wearing thin. But Selig says the issue will be resolved by midsummer, despite promises to that effect the last two years that failed to materialize.

An owners meeting in mid-May could generate a cutdown of candidates from the current seven to two or three. From there, the relocation committee will take its recommendation to Selig, who will in turn put a formal move before the full ownership. Given how late the last two Expos home schedules were compiled, thanks to the partial slates in Puerto Rico, there is still plenty of time to move the club for the 2005 season.

In the meantime, that means more waiting in Washington, just as has been the case for nearly 33 years.

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