- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 9, 2004

District Mayor Anthony Williams lately has been overseeing a heightening game of stadium cost limbo.

Williams and a large group of city officials presented Major League Baseball its latest, revised ballpark proposal Thursday. Included were a new range of stadium cost estimates. The least expensive site, the grounds of RFK Stadium, is now pegged at $278million, while the current home of Benjamin Banneker Park at 10th and G streets SW tops the list at $383million.

Close observers of Washington’s long, anguished quest to bring back baseball will know this is only the latest set of such numbers.

• In early 1999, a ballpark at RFK Stadium was projected at $207million, and a downtown site, then ideally Mount Vernon Square, was estimated at $330million.

• In late 2002, soon after MLB formed its relocation committee and the D.C. Council began to get engaged actively in the baseball chase, the cost range was $342million to $542million.

• Last year, when Williams introduced the Ballpark Revenue Amendment Act of 2003, the stadium was projected to cost between $343million and $436million. Late in 2003, when the Banneker site emerged as a possibility, early estimates there hovered around $500million.

• Last month, Williams said a ballpark on the RFK property, financed fully with public funds, would cost $340million.

So what’s going on? Williams and his staff, on part of the suggestion of some MLB executives, are trying to trim any potential fat off their projections. The 2003 cost estimates were hurriedly prepared in advance of the city’s first formal presentation before MLB’s relocation committee, and with the ongoing delays to move the Montreal Expos, city officials believe the current set of numbers are far more studied.

There also is a belief Washington essentially could be bidding against itself in the race for the Expos and that there is no need to float a monstrous number if it is not needed operationally or competitively.

“It’s always better for the cost to go down rather than up, but what I want is the right number, the true number,” said Steve Green, special assistant in the city department of planning and economic development.

Admirable goals, all. But the local numbers run directly against fast-escalating ballpark costs elsewhere.

San Diego’s new Petco Park carried a $474million price tag, when all land acquisition, infrastructure and financing costs were included. Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia opened this year at a cost of $458million. A ballpark in Minneapolis being debated by politicians is projected at $535million.

The last 10 ballparks to open have averaged $386million when all related costs are included. And history tells us stadium costs creep ever upward between concept and construction.

The reductions appear particularly eye-popping for the Banneker site, a favorite of many city officials. While no land acquisition costs would apply, as is the case at RFK, a rather radical stadium design calls for a partial overhang above Interstate 395.

“Most existing estimates of public subsidies for sports facilities are significantly underestimated,” wrote Judith Grant Long, a Rutgers University public policy professor, in her study, “Full Count: The Real Cost of Public Funding For Major League Sports Facilities.” The work is considered definitive by most sports economists.

The current District estimates were compiled in consultation with Turner Construction Co., a leading sports facilities builder. The leader of Turner’s sports division, Dale Koger, played an instrumental role in the construction of MCI Center, as well as the building and ongoing expansion of FedEx Field.

During those meetings with Turner, Green and other city officials elected to make several trims to the ballpark model that generated the various numbers. The primary reduction was dropping from four concourses to three. All suites and club seats are slated to be on one middle tier of seating, lowering the number of suites from 90 to 74.

Pains also were taken to make as many apples-to-apples comparisons to other cities as possible, not an easy task given the myriad ways construction costs can be categorized.

And rather than taking cues from high-dollar projects like those in San Diego, Seattle and Minnesota, the District is looking foremost to Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. The Reds’ Great American Ball Park, which opened last April, cost $361million. And the Pirates’ beautiful PNC Park, which opened in 2001, cost $262million.

But as anyone who has spent more than a few hours in Washington knows, costs for just about everything are far more than in Cincinnati or Pittsburgh. Green said Turner adjusted all the numbers in play for both local market conditions and inflation.

“There’s no one standard. Every one of these projects is different,” Green said. “But we have done some extensive due diligence on this, and we have every reason to believe we are projecting to be right in the middle of the recent ballparks.”

For now, the two parties that have perhaps the most to say about the cost estimates, MLB and the prospective ownership group led by financier Fred Malek, appear similarly unconcerned. Members of the relocation committee last week did not raise any major concerns with the new numbers, according to many officials present during the meeting.

And though current numbers call for the incoming Expos’ team owner in Washington to be responsible for any cost overruns, Malek’s group is voicing no objections.

But, as always in the endless quest for baseball, everyone should stay tuned.

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