Thursday, August 26, 2004

Major League Baseball likely will announce the future home of the Montreal Expos in two or three weeks, representatives of the District and Northern Virginia said yesterday.

The officials, speaking after two days of in-depth meetings with MLB’s relocation committee, said that committee is expected to forward its recommendation to commissioner Bud Selig next week. The most likely date for an announcement is the week of Sept.5 after Labor Day.

Selig said this week that a decision on the Expos could arrive “within four to six weeks.” But the District and Northern Virginia representatives said that, based on their meetings with the relocation panel, the decision would come sooner.

“The relocation committee is clearly focused on getting a resolution,” said Keith Frederick, chairman of the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority. “There is a real push happening to get this done. Something is going to happen soon.”

Frederick yesterday led a contingent of stadium authority officials and developers in a three-hour meeting in Georgetown with the relocation committee.

The Virginia session followed a 71/2-hour conference Tuesday between District officials and MLB. Much like the District’s meeting, yesterday’s talks centered on all key aspects of the authority’s stadium proposal and sought to advance lease negotiations that have been occurring for several weeks.

Joining Frederick were Gabe Paul Jr., Brian Hannigan and Jerry McAndrews from the stadium authority; consultant Mitchell Ziets and two developers from Diamond Lake Associates, Larry Bensignor and Hobie Mitchel. The stadium authority, along with Diamond Lake, is proposing to build a stadium and town center complex near Dulles International Airport.

Again leading MLB’s contingent was Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf.

“It was a great day,” said John McHale Jr., MLB vice president of administration.

Amid the breathless expectation, local officials remain wary because of repeated delays that have beset the Expos relocation.

The difference in Selig’s timetable for a decision and the one the relocation committee gave local officials also highlights a minor schism within baseball.

For weeks, committee members have grown increasingly restless waiting for Selig to aggressively move on the Expos situation. It now appears, however, that Selig at last understands the importance of settling the matter quickly.

The District is waiting for an award of the Expos before passing stadium financing. It would then need four to six months to properly convert RFK Stadium into a temporary baseball venue.

The city also is facing political uncertainty: Three D.C. Council members who support baseball — at-large Democrat Harold Brazil, Ward 8 Democrat Sandy Allen and Ward 7 Democrat Kevin Chavous — face tough battles for re-election. District elections are Sept.14, and even if those members lose, they will remain on the council until January. But if a vote on a stadium financing bill is delayed past then, the chances for passage are less certain.

“We need to get this done sooner rather than later, and we should get it done in this [political] cycle,” District Mayor Anthony Williams said yesterday. “We can’t take for granted the political support that is now in place for this.”

Northern Virginia, meanwhile, will lose its ability to use ballpark-related taxes to fund construction bonds at the end of the year.

The primary hurdle in the relocation of the Expos to greater Washington, Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos, was not discussed the past two days, both local groups said. That likely was because dealing with Angelos is more of an internal MLB issue in which the local bids cannot assist.

District officials clearly hope that significant sympathy for Angelos that exists within baseball is not a determining factor; that would help Northern Virginia, which has gone to great lengths to trumpet its increased distance to Baltimore.

“If they make a decision based solely on the merits, we’re getting this team and it will be here for Opening Day next year — it’s as simple as that,” said Mark Tuohey, chairman of the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission.

One of Northern Virginia’s biggest obstacles, acquiring land to build its proposed 450-acre complex in Loudoun County, was not a point of contention yesterday, Frederick said. The Diamond Lake developers currently control enough land to build a ballpark and some of the parking. But the vast majority of the acquisition efforts remain incomplete.

“It came up, but [the committee] didn’t raise any questions about that,” Frederick said.

A second Richmond legislator, Senate Finance Chairman John Chichester, yesterday came out against the stadium authority’s plan to use Virginia moral obligation bonds to finance a ballpark, joining House Speaker William Howell. But several commonwealth political insiders say Northern Virginia’s plan will not face substantial political opposition if it does land the Expos. The authority wants to use moral obligation bonds instead of its own revenue bonds in order to lower financing costs.

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