- The Washington Times - Friday, December 30, 2005

Three major U.S. cities recently renewed their efforts to land a major league baseball team, providing new venues where Major League Baseball could move the Washington Nationals if the D.C. Council fails to approve a lease agreement for a new stadium in the District.

However, officials from Las Vegas, San Antonio and Portland said they remain focused on luring the Florida Marlins, who are seeking to leave their Miami home. And industry sources said the ballpark plans in those cities are too half-baked to convince MLB officials to leave the District just yet.

“There is no debate of two facts: that Major League Baseball wants to be in D.C., and there are at least three places where the Nationals can be relocated,” said Marc Ganis, president of SportsCorp Ltd., a Chicago company that has consulted on the relocation of sports teams. “But no one should be thinking about the Nationals right now because it is Washington’s team.”

For the Nationals to remain in the District for the long-term, the D.C. Council must approve a lease agreement for a ballpark, to be located along South Capitol Street near the Anacostia River. A majority of the 13-member council is needed to approve the lease. A vote had been scheduled for Dec. 20 but was postponed because of lack of support.

After tomorrow, MLB could pursue arbitration, but city officials said they are continuing to talk with the league about changes to the lease that would satisfy council members. The council is expected to vote in mid-January, but if the lease is shot down, some ballpark supporters said MLB could move the team.

“It’s a big unknown, but we absolutely believe it’s a possibility,” said Vince Morris, a spokesman for Mayor Anthony A. Williams. “If Major League Baseball were sentimental, they never would have left Washington in the first place. We don’t want to find out the hard way.”

Officials in Las Vegas, San Antonio and Portland have had informal discussions with Marlins executives about relocating but have not talked with MLB regarding the Nationals. One thing working in the District’s favor is that none of the cities is willing to pay for the full cost of a stadium, as the District agreed to do last year. By luring the Marlins instead, the team would likely be able to convince the team owners to pay for part of the project.

On the other hand, MLB, which owns the Nationals, so far has been unwilling to contribute heavily to ballpark construction, agreeing to commit $20 million toward the Nationals’ stadium only after a tense four-month negotiation over the lease.

“We are not going to fully publicly finance a stadium,” said Christian Archer, a special assistant to San Antonio Mayor Phil Hardberger. “That’s not on the table here. Everyone knows what the tab is, and it’s substantial.”

Industry sources said Las Vegas may have the strongest chance of landing a team because it is one of the fastest-growing cities in the nation and mayor Oscar Goodman is a wild baseball supporter. But financing plans are still under discussion, and support from residents and casino operators has been mixed.

Portland does have in place a bill, passed in 2003, that would use an estimated $150 million in income taxes from players and team officials toward ballpark construction. But city support for baseball has softened in the last year. New mayor Tom Potter has said baseball should not be a priority, and it is unclear whether governor Ted Kulongoski would support a stadium plan because he is seeking re-election.

Ballpark opponents in the District have been concerned about the cost of the stadium, which has risen to $667 million. The city is authorized to borrow only $535 million for the project but is responsible for all cost overruns. Most council members said they would support the lease if those extra costs could be funded by outside money.

“I don’t see baseball backing out,” said Kwame Brown, at-large Democrat. “Why would they leave in a market that’s flourishing and that wants them? I think we’ll come up with something that’s a win-win situation.”

League officials did not return phone calls and e-mails requesting comment. In correspondence with council members, officials have threatened to take the city to arbitration but have not explicitly mentioned relocation as an option.

“The bottom line is that the team is in Washington,” said another industry source with knowledge of baseball’s relocation process. “Baseball does not have any real alternative” but to stay.

Northern Virginia also was strongly considered to land the team last year, but the area’s bid fell short after the state decided against using public funds for a stadium. Members of the Virginia Baseball Club, which led the effort, are now part of a group bidding to own the Nationals in the District. Norfolk also was a relocation option last year, but their efforts are not as organized as other cities, and officials in Charlotte, N.C. — another city contacted by the Marlins — said getting public money for the stadium would be difficult.

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