Wednesday, September 29, 2004

A Major League Baseball team may be destined to take the field in the District, but where that ballpark will be and who will pay for it is far from a done deal.

Proponents of baseball are confident they have enough votes on the D.C. Council to pass a public financing package to build a $440 million ballpark on the Anacostia River waterfront in Southeast — a plan that helped convince baseball officials to move the Expos to the nation’s capital.

But dissension among council members appeared to be growing yesterday, and three new council members taking office in January could tilt the balance against the mayor.

And some community groups are scrambling to rally opposition to the Southeast location, calling for organizational meetings and accusing Mayor Anthony A. Williams and baseball proponents of forcing black residents out of the Southeast neighborhood considered the most likely site for a new stadium.

“With every single project ever been done in this city, you are always going to have people who are against it,” Mr. Williams said yesterday at his weekly press briefing. “It is not my goal to achieve unanimity in the city. If my goal were to achieve unanimity in the city for every project in this city, we would never have done anything.”

Mr. Williams said his stadium plan would not divert city dollars from schools, parks or social programs.

And, he said, the new ballpark would help spur a renaissance around the proposed stadium site near M and South Capitol streets SE. The facility would replace about 60 properties in what is now largely a warehouse district.

“[T]his is something that benefits everyone in the city, benefits our individual neighborhoods in the city, certainly benefits the people on the Anacostia waterfront in a way that does not take from other city obligations and in a way that does not levy a tax on the residents of the city,” Mr. Williams said.

At least four members of the D.C. Council support the mayor’s plan and three staunchly oppose footing the stadium bill. The rest of the 13 council members remain undecided on public financing.

However, even the stadium naysayers claim to embrace the return of baseball to the District after a 33-year absence.

“We need a solid economic impact analysis that indicates baseball will be a home run in terms of improving the economy of the District,” said D.C. Council member Jim Graham, a Ward 1 Democrat who is undecided on the financing issue.

“We all want to see [baseball return], but we can’t make this decision on the basis of sentimentality,” he said. “Show us the beef. How are we going to benefit? I keep hearing from other cities that this is not going to be an economic boon.”

D.C. Council member Carol Schwartz, at-large Republican, said the announcement yesterday of baseball’s return marked the start of the stadium debate, and she planned to have a hand in crafting the deal.

“I was here when [baseball] was here before and I loved going to games and I want a team back. But I’m not going to break the bank to bring us one,” she said. “My vote will depend on the final deal. … I’m going to very much make suggestions about what I think that final package will include.”

She declined to elaborate on her recommendations.

The most vocal opponent of public financing remains D.C. Council member Adrian M. Fenty, Ward 4 Democrat. He intends to offer amendments to the financing scheme to require local ownership of the team, significant city control over the stadium and the team, and keeping the ballpark at RFK Stadium on a long-term basis.

Mr. Fenty said the mayor had negotiated a “sweetheart deal” for Major League Baseball, which owns the team. “They have a lot of money. They can build their own stadium,” he said.

Mr. Williams proposes to pay the stadium bonds with a combination of sales taxes from baseball tickets and stadium concessions, rent payments from the Expos team owners and a gross-receipts tax levied upon multimillion-dollar D.C. businesses.

The structure of the stadium deal is widely seen as a major victory for MLB, particularly because of the growing skepticism many cities have toward public financing for sports facilities. But baseball executives used their leverage as the current owners of the Expos and successfully tapped into the significant longing greater Washington has for baseball.

The mayor is expected to send the financing plan to the D.C. Council by next week. Supporters on the council, including Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat and chairman of the finance committee holding hearings on the plan, will likely push for a vote before year’s end.

The urgent timetable is needed to leave enough time to renovate RFK Stadium as a temporary ballpark for the team and to secure passage before the council’s composition changes in January.

Former Mayor Marion Barry, a Democrat who will become the Ward 8 council member, strongly opposes public financing and putting the stadium in Southeast. The two other new arrivals, Democrats Kwame Brown as at-large council member and Vincent C. Gray from Ward 7, also oppose public financing.

Mr. Gray said he was determined to strike a stadium deal that provided the most benefit for his constituents, even if that meant trying to tinker with previously approved legislation. “If there is an opportunity to improve upon this deal, I will certainly participate in that,” he said.

However, Mr. Williams said he is not worried that a new council will reverse a stadium deal struck in the next three months. He said the process assumes laws passed by one council will be honored by successive councils.

“I think the same will be true here,” he said. “Or else, how are you going to do business? Everything is going to change every three or four months or every four years.”

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