Wednesday, September 22, 2004

District officials have chosen a site near M Street and South Capitol Street in Southeast as their preferred spot for a ballpark as negotiations intensified to bring the Montreal Expos to the city.

The M Street choice was a surprise, beating out two more heralded sites north of the Mall as well as the RFK Stadium property. The highly industrialized area was scoffed at when it was named one of five initial site finalists two years ago. But the aim of a ballpark there, slated to cost more than $400million, is to piggyback on massive redevelopment efforts along the nearby Anacostia River, as well as provide an important lure to bring more tourist and development activity south of the Mall.

D.C. Council members were briefed on the proposal yesterday by the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission and staffers from the city Department of Planning and Economic Development.

“Yeah, that’s the choice,” said one city official closely tied to the baseball effort. “The sports commission will have the final selection, but that’s where it’s going.”

In recent months, baseball boosters spent considerable energy reviewing proposed sites at both New York Avenue Northeast and Benjamin Banneker Park in Southwest. The New York Avenue site, while attractive to many, did not have the desired waterfront nearby. The Banneker site, a particular focus of city efforts since last winter, was found to be far too expensive and cumbersome to select. The site would have required decking part of the ballpark over Interstate 395.

The selection of M Street as the city’s preferred ballpark site also arrives during an overwhelming state of anticipation over Major League Baseball’s relocation deliberations on the Montreal Expos. City officials have been in intense negotiations with MLB’s relocation committee for weeks, most recently holding an 11-hour session last week in Georgetown.

A decision awarding the Expos to the District is expected within days, probably early next week. MLB’s executive council will meet tomorrow in Milwaukee, with the Expos, Washington and the opposition of the Baltimore Orioles all slated to be part of the discussion. Orioles owner Peter Angelos, a heated opponent of baseball in Greater Washington, is part of the executive council.

“We know baseball is working very hard on this at their end, as are we at ours, and we hope to hear something favorable in the very near future,” said Mark Tuohey, sports commission chairman.

While Northern Virginia remains alive in the race, boosters there privately have grown worried their chance at the Expos may have slipped by. The commonwealth has conducted its own stadium lease negotiations with the relocation committee. But industry sources say Northern Virginia is not nearly as far along in developing a memorandum of understanding with baseball as is the District.

The MOU document would govern the relocation of the Expos to the District, the short-term use of RFK Stadium and the development of the new stadium.

The relocation committee’s clear choice for the Expos is the District, according to several baseball sources familiar with the process. But Northern Virginia is still pinning hopes on MLB commissioner Bud Selig, who may not necessarily choose to follow the recommendation of the relocation committee. Selig is a close friend of Angelos.

Even with the heavy expectation, the District is facing substantial time pressure. A decision from baseball on the Expos must arrive within the next two weeks for the city to land the Expos. Otherwise, the D.C. Council will run out of time to consider a ballpark financing package before the terms of the three key supporters on the council expire, as well as properly prepare RFK Stadium for baseball.

The M Street ballpark will be paid for through a mix of ballpark-related sales and use taxes, lease payments from the team owner and the reintroduction of the gross-receipts tax used to help finance MCI Center.

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