- The Washington Times - Friday, November 5, 2004

Washington’s 33-year pursuit of professional baseball was dealt a potentially fatal blow yesterday as Linda W. Cropp, chairwoman of the D.C. Council, said she will seek to relocate the proposed ballpark from Southeast to the grounds of RFK Stadium.

But Mayor Anthony A. Williams and other administration officials said such a move would violate the city’s tightly worded relocation deal with Major League Baseball (MLB) that calls for the ballpark to be located on the Southeast site.

“If this proposal moves forward, there will not be baseball in D.C,” an irate Mr. Williams said.

Mrs. Cropp’s announcement threw an otherwise quiet City Hall, the John A. Wilson Building, into chaos just days before Tuesday’s scheduled vote on the ballpark bill by the full council. The bill was approved Wednesday by the council’s economic development and finance committees.

The move shocked many city insiders. Mrs. Cropp for months was a staunch supporter of the mayor’s stadium plan. But she said her last-minute effort is driven by spiraling land costs for the proposed site near South Capitol Street SE, fear of heavy cost overruns for the entire project, and an undue financial burden levied on city businesses. Her plan will be part of an amendment package she will introduce on Tuesday.

“Many people want baseball here, but not at any cost. The costs at RFK are simply much lower,” said Mrs. Cropp, who acknowledged that her proposal could kill the city’s chance at relocating the Montreal Expos to the District. She was joined at her announcement by council members David Catania, an at-large independent, and Phil Mendelson, an at-large Democrat, who both support her amendment.

Mrs. Cropp projects a 20 percent savings in the cost of the new ballpark by building the stadium adjacent to RFK Stadium. Much of that savings would be achieved by avoiding heavy outlays for land acquisition and parking. The RFK Stadium property is leased by the city from the National Park Service, and contains more than 10,000 parking spaces.

Mr. Williams and his aides, however, disputed Mrs. Cropp’s assessment. The soil north of RFK Stadium is believed to be contaminated with lead, an issue that helped derail efforts in the early 1990s to put a new stadium there for the Washington Redskins. They said changing the new ballpark’s venue also threatens to lower annual rent payments from the team — something central to the financing model — and could diminish spinoff economic development plans near the Southeast site.

The mayor also disagreed with Mrs. Cropp’s assumption of cost overruns. The city twice injected substantial contingency funding into the stadium plan — the last round at the behest of Natwar Gandhi, the city’s chief financial officer.

Ironically, Mr. Williams lobbied in favor of the RFK site seven months ago when he first agreed to meet baseball’s strident demand of a ballpark financed entirely by the public sector. But as negotiations intensified over the summer with MLB’s relocation committee, both sides veered away from RFK in favor of a site closer to the District’s downtown core.

“We do the deal that’s on the table now; we control our own destiny and we get baseball,” said Jack Evans, Ward 2 council member, who was “blindsided” by Mrs. Cropp’s move yesterday. “We do what Linda’s got on the table, we go back into the unknown because it’s not certain how baseball will react. But whatever Linda wants to do, I have no doubt it will pass.”

Mrs. Cropp’s announcement, not in line with her typically low-key political style, also arrived with several changes to the gross-receipts tax on large D.C. businesses that will fund much of the ballpark costs. The tax, recently upped to a maximum of $48,000 a year, could be reduced in Mrs. Cropp’s plan to a top-end annual fee of $25,000. But several of Mrs. Cropp’s financing alternatives require altering tax rates for public utilities and telecommunications. Those measures are all but certain to provoke further opposition within the city.

Reaction from MLB was not panicked but hardly positive. Jerry Reinsdorf, Chicago White Sox owner and chairman of MLB’s relocation committee, told city officials yesterday that baseball still viewed the relocation pact as a firm contract — one that needed to be honored by both sides.

John McHale Jr., MLB vice president of administration, expressed a similar sentiment.

“In our opinion, we have made a deal with the mayor where he and the council have until Dec. 31, 2004, to obtain passage of the legislation effectuating the stadium agreement,” McHale said. “Until that time comes, we’re not going to get excited and inject ourselves in that process. Stadium agreements usually do come with some vigorous debate.”

The current political rancor in the District seemingly opens a small window for a rival Northern Virginia bid that still is technically in existence. But after Dec. 31, key portions of the commonwealth’s proposed stadium financing plan expire, eliminating that fallback option.

The relocation deal with MLB does allow for a mutually agreed upon selection of a new ballpark site should the Southeast parcel become unavailable. What angers Mr. Williams and his staff is that Mrs. Cropp made that projection well in advance of any land acquisition efforts, and without the input of MLB officials.

Mark Tuohey, chairman of the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission, said last night he and other city officials are working over the weekend to bridge the gap between the mayor and Mrs. Cropp. One possibility might be to tighten up the provisions governing the pursuit of the Southeast parcel, currently in the control of a diverse group of private owners. Should projected costs to buy the land go beyond the projected $65 million or beyond a specified date, then RFK could be reviewed.

“I think Linda has still left the door open for resolution,” said Bill Hall, sports commission board member.

Mrs. Cropp acknowledged that she could go down in local history as a second coming of former Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, who allowed the Redskins to escape the city and cut a stadium deal in Prince George’s County.

“She did come to mind, but I had to ask myself, ‘Is it baseball at any cost?’ ” Mrs. Cropp said. “I think I can now sleep in good conscience.”

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