Saturday, August 28, 2004

District officials yesterday released the results of a city-commissioned poll showing 82 percent support among area residents for a proposed ballpark in Washington compared to one in Loudoun County.

The survey, conducted by District-based Glover Park Group, marks the latest salvo in an ever-heightening rivalry between the city and Northern Virginia in the race for the Montreal Expos. Major League Baseball is expected to name its long-awaited relocation choice for the Expos in as little as two weeks, and the two local bids are widely seen as front-runners.

The survey, involving 919 residents of greater Washington over the past week, also found 65 percent of Virginia residents favoring a ballpark in the District. Fans polled said they would attend an average of nine games a year at a city ballpark compared with three in Loudoun County. The poll was taken from residents across most of the Washington area and was weighted based on the population spread in each major jurisdiction. But it did not include Loudoun County residents.

“This, very frankly, states what we believe to be obvious,” said Jack Evans, D.C. Council finance chairman. “The best way to go about this is to build in the center of the market. But we had to go out and prove it because people don’t immediately take you at your word.”

With political and fan support for baseball already coalesced to a fair degree in the District, Evans said the primary intended audience for the poll is MLB commissioner Bud Selig, who will make the call on the Expos’ new home.

The District polling also arrives at a time when Northern Virginia’s bid is coming under rapidly intensifying attack from skeptical landowners, politicians and fans.

The Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority, the lead entity for the Northern Virginia bid, enjoys generally strong relationships in Richmond. And the proposal for a stadium near Dulles International Airport has garnered the support of some MLB owners who fear a team in the District presents too much of an economic threat to the Baltimore Orioles.

But land acquisition efforts for Northern Virginia’s proposed 450-acre stadium and mixed-use development are proceeding at a pace slow enough that the project is now being envisioned as half that size at best, and probably smaller than that for the foreseeable future. Developers working with the stadium authority currently control enough land to build the stadium itself and some of the needed parking.

The primary issue is Chantilly Crushed Stone, the quarry near Route 28 and the Dulles Toll Road that owns 220 key acres in the targeted parcel. A deal to sell that land is nowhere in sight, recalling similarly thwarted efforts in Arlington County. Ballpark boosters last year spent months championing a site in Pentagon City only to find both the landowners and county government completely hostile to the idea.

As for Richmond, two powerful legislators there have publicly spoken out recently against the stadium authority’s plans to back ballpark construction bonds with the moral obligation of the commonwealth. Compounding that opposition is a lack of recent vocal support from Gov. Mark Warner. The Democrat has not come close to matching the visible flag waving on baseball done in recent months by District Mayor Anthony Williams and key council members.

Norfolk also is seeking the Expos, further limiting what Warner can say publicly about Northern Virginia.

“The entire political leadership in this city has stood behind this project and committed as such to Major League Baseball,” Evans said. “In Virginia, the governor can’t get away from this fast enough.”

Responded Ellen Qualls, Warner’s spokesman: “The governor has long supported baseball coming to Virginia but any financing plan requiring the public guarantee of funds deserves a great amount of scrutiny.”

Virginia boosters yesterday were quick to say the Diamond Lake consortium of developers have not wavered in their pledge to help build the roads, parking and related infrastructure for a Loudoun County ballpark and that the total effort can still easily work with less than the 450 acres. The financing structure for the ballpark itself is not altered, stadium authority executives said.

But the emerging reality for the overall project, at least in the near term, does not match what was trumpeted at a press conference two months ago.

“The question is whether the glass is half empty or half full,” said Brian Hannigan, stadium authority spokesman. “We think it’s half full, and filling.”

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