Tuesday, December 6, 2005

D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi said yesterday he is conducting a new estimate of the costs of a ballpark for the Washington Nationals in Southeast, in response to rising costs of materials and land over the past year.

Mr. Gandhi said he expected to present the new estimate, which still was being formulated, to the D.C. Council soon, as it prepares to borrow $535 million to pay for the stadium by the end of this month.

“When we presented our last formal estimate in August, we estimated the costs would remain at $535 million, the cap set by council on the amount the District would borrow,” said Mr. Gandhi, who last night met with Mayor Anthony A. Williams about stadium costs. “We are now analyzing that number to take into account a number of cost increases, including the price of materials and labor in the aftermath of several natural disasters in the U.S.”

City officials refuted a report that the estimate would state ballpark costs at $701 million, more than $110 million over the amount being borrowed to pay for the stadium. WRC-TV (Channel 4) reported last night that the cost of the ballpark would be $661 million, plus $40 million for the cost of issuing bonds. The report, however, did not state what other costs were included in the estimate.

City officials said the figure was merely a “worst-case scenario” estimate that includes infrastructure and the most expensive materials for the ballpark that are not included in the current estimate.

“They threw everything but the kitchen sink into the cost,” said Vince Morris, a spokesman for Mr. Williams. “It’s not a realistic estimate of the stadium cost.” Mr. Morris suggested the information was provided to the station by a ballpark opponent.

The city has said it will not borrow more than $535 million for the stadium and land, plus $59 million for issuance costs, insurance and money to create a reserve fund. About $55 million in infrastructure costs, which had been included in the estimate, will be paid for by either the federal government or private developers rather than the money from bonds, the city said.

City officials also are removing some aspects of the ballpark design to stay under the $535 million budget.

Opponents of the lease have argued that the stadium is too expensive and that the city would be better served by building the ballpark at a site near RFK Stadium, where, they argue, it would be cheaper.

David A. Catania, at-large independent, will introduce two pieces of emergency legislation to the council today, one that would cap expenditures at $535 million and another that would require infrastructure costs to be included in that total.

Also yesterday, D.C. officials negotiating a lease agreement for the ballpark said they have managed to secure $20 million from Major League Baseball (MLB) for a 1,225-space VIP parking lot at the stadium site, with the only concession being that the city will split revenue from those spaces with the league.

One city official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because talks are ongoing, said it is hardly a concession at all, because VIP spaces are commonly provided to a team in exchange for rent. The two sides had been talking about development rights for MLB around the stadium, but the District resisted such proposals.

The two sides still are negotiating additional details, including the creation of a rent reserve for the stadium. Officials had asked for a $24 million letter of credit to pay rent in case the team is unable to play in the stadium for some reason.

MLB has offered a rolling letter of credit for a shorter term. It is not clear whether that proposal will be approved by Wall Street bond raters, who said they need the letter of credit to provide investment-grade ratings on the bonds used to pay for the ballpark.

The lease is expected to be completed and ready to submit to the council by the end of the week, but the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission must vote first.

Council members and staffers said the council likely would approve the lease when it votes later this month, now that it contains financial contributions from baseball with only small concessions.

A council vote on the lease is planned for Dec. 20.

Council members cautioned that they have not seen the lease and could vote against it if there are unexpected provisions.

“All of this presumes no surprises. … None of us have gotten the lease,” said Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat and a strong supporter of baseball. “We don’t have a final document.”

Lease supporters said they expect to get support from Carol Schwartz, at-large Republican, and Kwame R. Brown, at-large Democrat, two council members who have remained uncommitted.

A third undecided council member, at-large Democrat Phil Mendelson, said he was “still looking at both sides.” He said he had conveyed some concerns to the mayor’s office and was expecting responses as soon as today, but he declined to elaborate.

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