Friday, August 6, 2004

Major League Baseball’s relocation committee met Thursday with leaders of Northern Virginia’s bid, the latest step in its much-delayed deliberations on the future of Montreal Expos.

The trip, led by MLB president Bob DuPuy and Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, centered on both the commonwealth’s financing plan and land acquisition for a proposed stadium in Loudoun County. MLB officials did not meet with any leaders from the District, which has its own bid for the Expos.

“There’s nothing to read into that,” said a industry source familiar with the session. “The Northern Virginia bid has more moving parts, the inclusion of the developers. There’s more things that need to be clarified.”

That said, the relocation committee’s attention, as it has since late May, remains squarely focused on the District and Northern Virginia, according to several baseball sources. Four other candidates — Norfolk; Monterrey, Mexico; Portland, Ore., and Las Vegas — have not been eliminated, but lately little time has been spent on their bids. MLB commissioner Bud Selig said last month the other Expos’ bidder — San Juan, Puerto Rico — no longer is being considered.

The Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority, along with three prominent development companies, proposes to surround a $360million ballpark with a large complex of housing, office space, retail shops and a man-made lake.

DuPuy declined to comment yesterday on the Northern Virginia meeting, as did Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority executives. DuPuy also did not place a new target date for a relocation decision. But several industry and government sources said the long-awaited choice is now targeted for late August or September at the earliest. MLB officials have claimed the Expos will have a new home for the 2005 season.

“We continue to make significant progress and are receiving and analyzing information from the interested parties,” DuPuy said.

MLB owners will meet Aug.18-19 in Philadelphia. Further discussion of the Expos is expected, but the major vote will be to extend Selig’s contract by three years to 2009.

As the wait for baseball’s choice drags out, local officials have grown increasingly concerned about having enough time to renovate RFK Stadium properly for baseball. The work might be done in as little as 10 to 12 weeks. But four to six months is seen by both District and Northern Virginia officials as a much more workable timetable and one that could better absorb weather-related delays over the winter.

If either the District or Northern Virginia lands the Expos, as is the assumption, it is unlikely any work at the 43-year-old facility would begin before late October. The stadium is slated to serve as a three-year temporary home for the team if either jurisdiction wins the relocation derby. However, District officials have promised Northern Virginia a difficult negotiation process should the commonwealth prevail.

Even if the relocation decision comes in the next month, the balance of September likely will be needed to complete legislation for stadium financing on either side of the Potomac River. Northern Virginia will need to ratify repayment plans for its revenue bonds, while the D.C. Council will need to complete the entire legislative process on a stadium finance bill.

DuPuy, however, said there is no great concern within baseball about the increasingly urgent timing.

“We are not yet uncomfortable about temporary venues,” he said.

District officials, meanwhile, met Thursday with officials from HNTB Corp., a leading architecture and engineering planning firm, and discussed renovation plans for RFK Stadium.

“We are continuing to be prepared and take a real hard look at schedules, at what work needs to be done in what may be a shorter and shorter window of time,” said Bill Hall, a director on the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission.

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