- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 22, 2004

The Washington Nationals again are a reality after the D.C. Council ratified an amended version of its ballpark financing bill and Major League Baseball approved the legislation yesterday.

“We can now focus our attention on bringing baseball back to Washington this coming season,” MLB Commissioner Bud Selig said. “We are also pleased that our discussions with Washington’s elected leaders over the last several days have helped each side better understand the concerns of the other. We are now more confident than ever of a long and productive relationship.”

MLB lifted its six-day suspension of all Nationals business activities, allowing for the resumption of ticket sales and a reopening of the team’s store at RFK Stadium.

The council’s 7-6 vote yesterday was the result of a crucial agreement reached late Monday by D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams and council Chairman Linda W. Cropp and gives MLB its needed guarantee that a 41,000-seat ballpark will be built near the Anacostia River waterfront in Southeast.

With that guarantee absent for a tension-filled week before yesterday’s vote, MLB had threatened to move the Nationals out of Washington before they played a game. The District had until Dec. 31 to fix the legislation.

“I am proud to say that finally and at last we have risen above the fray,” Mr. Williams said. “We have kept our commitments to Major League Baseball, we have kept our commitments to the council, and we have kept our commitment to the city.”

The council’s passage of the revised legislation resolved a back-and-forth debate that ran for weeks between Mr. Williams and Mrs. Cropp and touched off another series of celebrations around the city.

“This is the best Christmas present Washington could hope for,” said Bill Hall, board member of the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission. “We went into extra innings, but it was absolutely worth it. Baseball is definitely coming to Washington.”

In the compromise, Mrs. Cropp agreed to drop legislative language mandating at least 50 percent of stadium construction be funded with private money, backed by the threat of killing the entire relocation deal. In return, Mr. Williams and his staff gained additional financial protection from MLB for the city should the stadium run over budget or is not completed by its March 1, 2008, due date.

The Nationals now can recoup a maximum of $5.3 million in the first year that the new stadium is not done on time through no fault of the District, down from $19 million. A $19 million cap on damages to the Nationals for a second year of delay in the stadium’s completion was not changed.

MLB and the District also have agreed to share the insurance premiums to cover potential stadium cost overruns. The new amenities are part of a “risk mitigation program” offered by MLB as a result of renegotiations forced by Mrs. Cropp.

“You, Madame Chair, have made lemonade out of some real bad lemons,” Ward 6 Democrat Sharon Ambrose said of Mrs. Cropp’s repeated attempts to lower the city’s investment in the stadium.

Private financing is still pegged to cover half of the hard stadium costs. But the legislation now acknowledges a previous public-financing bill structure as the option of last resort if no viable and certifiable source of private money is found.

“The sunset provision was obviously the major area of concern for us. We were gravely concerned our stay in Washington was going to be a short one,” MLB President Bob DuPuy said.

One proposal involving the issuance of revenue bonds against curbside parking around the stadium has received preliminary certification from Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi. Mrs. Cropp and several other council members do not particularly care for the proposal. But with its potential cost savings of $100 million, the parking plan will stand in as the de facto source of private funds until a better option presents itself.

“We still have work to do to make private financing work, but I have every confidence it will happen,” Mrs. Cropp said.

Sealing Mrs. Cropp’s much-needed support was a letter sent to her early yesterday from Mr. Williams listing 10 types of private-financing options.

Mrs. Cropp estimated that the entire package of private financing and changes to the city’s exposure to risk could save the District as much as $193.5 million.

Because of the new legislative language from Mrs. Cropp, the entire ballpark legislation needed to be voted on again. Voting in favor of the revised bill were Democrats Mrs. Cropp, Mrs. Ambrose, Jack Evans, Harold Brazil, Kevin P. Chavous, Sandy Allen and Vincent B. Orange Sr. Voting against were Democrats Adrian M. Fenty, Jim Graham, Kathy Patterson and Phil Mendelson, Republican Carol Schwartz and independent David A. Catania. The vote split is identical to one from last week.

Mrs. Schwartz twice gave extended and heated rebukes of the financing plan and those in the Williams administration who helped construct it.

“We’ve gone from the world’s lousiest deal to still the world’s lousiest deal,” she said. “I congratulate baseball’s major-league negotiators and condemn our own minor-league negotiators. They cleaned our clock.”

Even with Mrs. Schwartz’s angry remarks, debate on the revised baseball bill yesterday lasted just an hour, a marked change from marathon hearings and negotiations littered throughout the council’s review of the legislation.

The Nationals, meanwhile, immediately will resume vigorous promotional and merchandising activities. The team store/trailer outside RFK Stadium will reopen at 8 a.m. today. Team jerseys, the designs of which were released last week on the Internet, will be available. The Nationals also plan to contact the 563 purchasers of season tickets who had asked for a refund to see whether they have changed their minds. If they buy back in, they will retain their previous priority status.

More than 16,400 season tickets have been sold.

“We’ll be fully operational [Wednesday morning]. We’re ramping right back up,” Nationals President Tony Tavares said.

With the final council ratification in hand, work will begin in earnest to ready RFK Stadium for baseball. The breakneck project is estimated to cost $18.5 million and run right up until before the Nationals’ April 14 home opener.

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