- The Washington Times - Friday, May 20, 2005

District Mayor Anthony A. Williams yesterday called on the D.C. Council to approve private financing quickly of the Washington Nationals’ planned stadium in Southeast in order to keep the project on its aggressive timetable.

Meeting with a group of editors and reporters from The Washington Times, Williams said he is concerned over recent attempts on the council to consider offers of private ballpark financing that have not received certification from Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi and, in the mayor’s opinion, threaten to delay the project.

In the District’s relocation contract with Major League Baseball, the city is obligated to meet several deadlines for the stadium development. Among those milestones are the land acquisition and rezoning of the ballpark site, located near the Anacostia River waterfront, by the end of this year, and completion of the stadium by March 2008.

“This is Politics 100. Some people don’t want to have the stadium as it was structured,” Williams said, refusing to mention any council members by name. “They believe the deal was too rich or they don’t want to have it on that site because they think it’s too expensive. And there is a whole bunch of them that … are going to use every milestone and monument to try to slow it down.”

The council is seeking to ratify a bill incorporating private financing into the ballpark by early July, when the body breaks for its summer recess. But the preferred source of those funds remains under vigorous debate.

Gandhi and Williams have backed a $246 million debt financing package from Deutsche Bank. Several council leaders, including chairman Linda Cropp and Ward 2 Democrat Jack Evans, instead are actively considering a complex financing structure involving debt, equity and land depreciation tax credits advanced by D.C. Baseball Stadium Associates, a group of real estate investment executives with ties to the District.

Parallel to the refinancing effort, several council members, most notably at-large independent David Catania, have challenged Gandhi’s estimate of $77 million for land acquisition at the stadium site. Formal negotiations with landowners will begin this summer, leaving little time for hiccups as the Dec. 31 deadline looms.

“Is the timetable ambitious? Yes. Am I concerned? Sure. But we need to keep pushing forward, we’re going to do that, and I have confidence we’re going to meet our deadlines,” Williams said.

Meanwhile, Williams said his administration is closely monitoring the unprecedented television structure in which the MLB-owned Nationals and Baltimore Orioles are partners in the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN), a regional sports network aiming to show games of both clubs. The Orioles are the majority owners of MASN.

Last month, Williams and Evans co-authored an opinion piece praising the arrangement, in which the Nationals receive a guaranteed annual rights fee for local TV distribution, starting at $20 million this season, and share the Mid-Atlantic TV market with the Orioles in terms of geographic distribution.

But since then, The Washington Times has reported on a $75 million payment made by MLB to the Orioles for a minority stake in MASN, as well as MLB possibly keeping that MASN equity if prospective bidders for the Nationals do not offer enough money for it.

“We’ve actually been looking at [the agreement] very, very closely because I’m concerned with anything that would undermine the potential of the team to get rooted here and situated here, and marketing certainly is a big, big part of that,” Williams said. “We are learning some things we didn’t know before. We’re assessing where we are at this basis.”

In other baseball-related comments:

• Williams praised the play of the 23-18 Nationals, the strong early attendance for the club, and operations at recently renovated RFK Stadium. The mayor, however, expressed frustration over still-incomplete efforts to improve slow lines and supply outages at food and beverage stands at the stadium.

• As he has several times this year, Williams called the return of baseball to Washington one of his proudest political achievements, and recalled fondly the ovation received at the Nationals’ April 14 home opener.

“The acclimation on Opening Night was really more than just about baseball, but people feeling good about where the city is, particularly operating against so many obstacles, so many challenges,” Williams said.

• Williams expects the final price tag for the new ballpark to come in below the $607 million targeted recently by Gandhi.

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