- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 28, 2004

The District’s $435.2 million proposal for a baseball stadium in Southeast received a hostile reception yesterday from the D.C. Council during a public hearing that lasted more than 12 hours.

The council’s skepticism heightens the tension as ballpark advocates race against the clock to complete the move of the Montreal Expos to Washington.

Five of the 10 council members at the hearing expressed serious problems with the stadium-financing package as currently constructed by D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams, bringing the relocation deal perilously close to the seven fatal “no” votes. The concerns ran the gamut from financing and land-acquisition costs to the team’s role in paying for the stadium.

“I cannot in good conscience support a plan in which the city foots the entire bill and assumes all the risk,” said Carol Schwartz, at-large Republican. Mrs. Schwartz’s often-high level of vitriol yesterday surprised many observers, particularly because she stood right behind the mayor four weeks ago during a press conference celebrating the Expos’ move.

“I don’t think we negotiated a good deal with baseball, and I’m not going to just buy anything,” she said.

The mayor’s plan calls for the city to issue bonds up to $500 million to pay for a new stadium and improvements at RFK Stadium, where the soon-to-be-renamed Expos will play for three seasons. The bonds then would be paid off through a combination of ballpark-related sales taxes, annual lease payments from the team and a gross-receipts tax on large D.C. businesses.

The bill is slated for markup next week and a first vote by the 13-member council on Nov. 9. The measure must be ratified by Dec. 31 to preserve the Expos’ relocation.

Joining Mrs. Schwartz in the opposition to the stadium yesterday were Ward 1 Democrat Jim Graham, at-large independent David A. Catania, Ward 3 Democrat Kathy Patterson, and Ward 4 Democrat Adrian M. Fenty.

“Our businesses are struggling, and I don’t think they should make a sacrifice to benefit wealthy team owners,” Mr. Fenty said. “We’re creating a windfall for someone who doesn’t need it.”

Stadium advocates, however, said they remained undaunted after yesterday’s marathon session. Several council members have said privately that they see at least seven solid “yes” votes to pass the bill. And on Tuesday, Mr. Williams proposed creating a large tax-increment financing district (TIF) around and north of the new ballpark to raise money for amenities such as libraries and recreation centers.

Although details of the TIF plan are still not clear and the plan is already unpopular with several council members, the offering may pave the way for other alterations to the stadium financing. The stadium plan as written has several key supporters on the council, most notably Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat and finance committee chairman, and council Chairwoman Linda W. Cropp, at-large Democrat.

“When the process is done and the debate is complete, I think you’ll be very surprised at the final vote,” said Mark Tuohey, chairman of the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission. “What we’re seeing is a very healthy and honest debate. But this stadium will benefit the city in ways we’ve not yet imagined.”

Added Mr. Evans: “I think some of [the other council members] will come around. It’s still early. For the first time in this whole pursuit of baseball, we actually control our own destiny. We work through this and approve the financing, the team is coming.”

Yesterday’s hearing drew a witness list that was more than 230 names long, creating one of the largest public hearings in the history of the council. The council’s fifth-floor chambers at the John A. Wilson Building in Northwest were packed.

And drawing some of the biggest applause in those crowded chambers, perhaps not surprisingly, was former Mayor Marion Barry. The likely winner next week for the Ward 8 council seat, Mr. Barry took sharp aim at the city officials who made the stadium deal with Major League Baseball.

“This deal is the biggest stickup since Jesse James and the great train robbery,” Mr. Barry said, drawing a mixture of applause and laughter. “It’s going to cost the city dearly.”

Not surprisingly, the gross-receipts tax garnered much attention during yesterday’s hearing. Forming the largest chunk of the stadium financing, the measure would call for city businesses grossing more than $3 million a year to pay the fee on a graduated scale. Businesses grossing more than $16 million a year would be assessed the highest fee, $28,200 a year.

The hearing drew scores of business groups and business owners supporting the measure, typically because of the belief and hope that drawing more than 3 million people a season into the District for baseball would benefit their bottom line and improve the overall vibrancy of the city.

“Baseball has a way of uniting communities that are otherwise divided by geography, ideology, income and background,” said Robert Peck, president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade.

But several council members angrily questioned why such a tax wasn’t being created for other city needs, or at least apportioned in part to services such as libraries and schools. Mr. Graham is among that crowd, pushing for an increase in the top-tier payment in the proposed tax.

“Does this now mean we have free rein now to raise the corporate tax rate in the city?” Mr. Catania said. “Quite frankly, I think it’s lunacy, nonsense … to say people are going to come from the suburbs, go outside the defined [stadium] area and shop in our stores. We’re basically proposing to subsidize the entertainment of Marylanders and Virginians.”

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