Friday, July 23, 2004

The baseball rivalry between the District and Northern Virginia will not end if the commonwealth prevails in the race to land the Montreal Expos.

District Mayor Anthony Williams said yesterday Virginia must negotiate like any prospective tenant for the use of RFK Stadium with no guarantee of a deal — a sentiment that has circulated among city officials for weeks and has generated increasing industry conversation as Major League Baseball nears a long-awaited decision on the Expos.

Northern Virginia would need to use the 43-year-old stadium for three years while a ballpark is built in Loudoun County.

“[A lease] has to be negotiated, but you can’t just presume,” Williams said on WMAL (AM-630). “I don’t know why everybody … you know, this is how everybody just runs around, runs over the District. How could Northern Virginia just presume that they’re going to play in RFK?”

While this comment from Williams reflects some frustration over Northern Virginia’s expectation of using RFK, the reality on both sides of the Potomac River is much more nuanced. The commonwealth is well aware it must work to obtain a lease for the stadium, will need to pay full market value and perhaps then some for the stadium lease and will not be receiving any money from the District for needed improvements to the facility. The city has proposed spending a minimum of $15million to prepare RFK for baseball as part of its own Expos bid.

As for the District, the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission has posted fiscal losses in each of the last several years, and keeping RFK busy with more than D.C. United and the occasional concert remains a constant struggle. City sources said lease discussions for a Virginia-based team using RFK would begin at $10million a year — the sum the owner of the relocated Expos would pay annually to lease the ballpark in Loudoun County if it’s built — and likely run much higher than that.

The District also would stand to gain at least another $10million each year in tax revenue from the sale of tickets, concessions and parking.

Additionally, D.C. United’s lease at RFK would enter into formal plans for any baseball team playing at the stadium. A recently signed three-year extension for the soccer team to play at the stadium contains provisions to govern the sharing of RFK by United and a baseball team. MLB itself likely will be a significant player in a lease deal at RFK, too.

“Like anything else, if we get to that point [where Virginia wins the Expos], we’ll sit down and discuss the issue,” said Mark Tuohey, sports commission chairman. “You can’t close that out ahead of time. You can’t just shut the door.”

Six years ago, a meeting convened by Rep. Tom Davis, Virginia Republican, seemingly settled the RFK issue. With members of both the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority and D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission in the room, a gentleman’s agreement was reached that local squabbling over RFK would not position Greater Washington in the best light with MLB executives. Furthermore, District officials said they would not create any undue barriers to a Virginia team using the stadium temporarily.

Since then, William Collins III, the prospective team owner in Northern Virginia, has hired Jim Dalrymple, former sports commission executive director, to plan for the temporary use of RFK. Collins or any other buyer of a Virginia-based team would need to pay for improvements to RFK, as opposed to the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority.

“I don’t understand how you would say no to a paying tenant bringing in at least 81 dates a year for three years,” said Brian Hannigan, Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority spokesman.

MLB officials are expected to name the future home of the Expos by the owners meetings scheduled Aug.18-19 in Philadelphia.

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