- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 16, 2004

The District’s bid for the Montreal Expos lost a key advantage over the rival effort from Northern Virginia when three supporters on the D.C. Council were unseated in Tuesday’s Democratic primary elections.

Northern Virginia’s status as a player in the Expos relocation race effectively ends Dec.31, when the commonwealth’s ability to divert ballpark-related sales and use taxes toward the construction of the ballpark expires. The District is now facing essentially the same deadline because Democrats Sandy Allen, Kevin Chavous and Harold Brazil will be out of office in early January.

The trio will be replaced by former mayor Marion Barry, Vincent Gray and Kwame Brown, each of which has voiced opposition to Mayor Anthony Williams’ plan to fund a ballpark in the District with public dollars. Without the support of Brazil, Allen and Chavous, city baseball boosters may not have enough council votes to pass a stadium financing bill in 2005.

But Williams and other city leaders, including council chairwoman Linda Cropp, sought yesterday to downplay the impending deadline and are pushing for a prompt resolution to the Expos saga.

“Once the public understands what’s on the table, I believe any concerns are surmountable,” Williams said.

Amid that backdrop, District officials met for a whopping 11 hours yesterday in Georgetown with Major League Baseball’s relocation committee. The marathon session, coupled with one here Aug.24, has given the District more than 18 hours of high-level, in-person negotiations with baseball on the Expos in the last three weeks, compared to 51/2 for Northern Virginia in the same time frame.

“We’ve had another two days of very good, very productive meetings,” said Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, a key figure on the relocation panel. Reinsdorf, interviewed last night, joked that Omaha, Neb., had surged into the lead for the Expos.

Negotiations with both the District and Northern Virginia are going over detailed points of a prospective lease deal for a new ballpark. But District officials believe the massive time difference spent with the relocation panel speaks clearly to their favor. Lease negotiations with the city already have reached a point where quibbling over individual words and clauses is happening.

The focus of the city’s work is a 30-page memorandum of understanding that, if the District is selected to get the Expos, would govern the relocation, short-term use of RFK Stadium and funding and construction of a new ballpark.

“It was an extremely productive meeting,” said Mark Tuohey, chairman of the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission, echoing Reinsdorf. “We’re moving ahead.”

Reinsdorf, however, did not regard the time disparity quite the same way.

“There’s nothing to read into that,” he said. “[Northern Virginia] had fewer questions to resolve.”

Williams, who attended the meeting for about 70 minutes, yesterday acknowledged he and the city must continue to sell the merits of the city’s baseball bid and do a far better job framing the issue. The defeat of Brazil, Allen and Chavous represented a significant political setback for the two-term mayor, who supported the re-election bids of all three.

The city is proposing to fund a stadium with a combination of ballpark-related sales and use taxes, and a reintroduction of the gross-receipts tax on large District businesses used to help fund MCI Center in the mid-1990s. Cost estimates for the ballpark project range from $278million to $383million, but those numbers are not definite, and no selection has been made among four sites under consideration.

Local officials are pressing MLB executives to make the long-awaited decision on the Expos before the end of the month. That date would be more than two months removed from the mid-July target date previously eyed by baseball but would set in motion plans to renovate RFK Stadium for baseball. Such work ideally requires four to six months.

The relocation committee is aiming to forward its formal recommendation for the Expos next week to commissioner Bud Selig.

But complicating matters remains an ongoing lawsuit filed by former limited partners of the Expos, who this week again vowed to file an injunction seeking to block a move should MLB pull the trigger on its relocation plans. The move was prompted by a formal notification to the U.S. District Court in Miami by MLB that it intends to relocate the Expos for the 2005 season.

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