- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 29, 2005

D.C. officials yesterday said they are close to getting financial concessions from Major League Baseball for construction of a new ballpark for the Washington Nationals in Southeast, allowing the city to complete a stadium lease agreement and submit it for a council vote.

Members of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, which is leading the lease negotiation with baseball on behalf of the city, said they hope to secure a $20 million payment from MLB for parking at the ballpark. They also are working out final details on a plan to secure a $6 million annual lease payment from the Nationals.

The commitments, which had been stalling the talks for more than three months, address the concerns of council members who had been critical of MLB for balking on aspects of the lease and refusing to put up more cash for the stadium.

The council has grown increasingly worried about ballpark costs, which are pushing the upper end of estimates, and many members have argued that the ballpark instead should be built near RFK Stadium to save money. Council members grilled city officials on these issues yesterday during a marathon hearing that began at 10 a.m. and lasted well into the night.

It is not clear when the council will vote on the lease, though it could come before the council at its legislative meeting Dec. 6. The lease contains several provisions dealing with ballpark financing, and under the ballpark agreement the city is required to have money from the sale of bonds for the stadium by Dec. 31. MLB yesterday warned the city not to delay completion of the lease.

“Washington’s fans waited more than 30 years for the return of baseball to the District,” said MLB spokesman Rich Levin. “If the December 31 deadline is missed, they risk waiting another year for their stadium to be built.”

It was not clear until yesterday whether the council would have to vote on the lease at all. City sources said they think they have the seven votes required to push the lease agreement through, especially now that the city is close to getting commitments from MLB. Some council members yesterday said they would support the lease even though they voted against the ballpark agreement last year.

MLB commissioner Bud Selig has said he will not select a new owner for the Nationals until the lease agreement is signed.

“I do believe the credibility of the city is often very low. … We’re playing chicken against ourselves,” said Carol Schwartz, at-large Republican. “Playing chicken against ourselves can get us into more financial problems.”

Several of the most contentious exchanges at the hearing yesterday centered on the ballpark’s costs and the city’s efforts to stay under budget. The cost of the stadium itself has risen from $244 million to about $300 million due to a rise in the cost of materials. Land costs are now $97 million, up from an estimate of $77 million.

Officials have been scrambling for ways to keep ballpark costs down, including removing infrastructure costs and Metro upgrades from the budget. Several members of the council said the city was breaking the law by taking out those costs.

“We’re headed to court if it goes through on these terms and these conditions,” said David A. Catania, an at-large independent who called city leaders “intellectually dishonest.”

City Administrator Robert C. Bobb testified that the city is talking to the federal government about paying for upgrades to the Navy Yard Metro station to nearly double its capacity, arguing that the station is used by an increasing number of federal employees who work nearby. Council members were skeptical of that plan and said such costs are clearly part of the ballpark budget.

“We can’t go assuming the federal government will help us,” said Sharon Ambrose, Ward 6 Democrat and chairwoman of the Committee on Economic Development. “It’s unfortunate that we have tied our hands, and I don’t know how we can get out of it.”

Mr. Bobb said the city also could ask developers in the area to pay for upgrades or have Metro sell or lease some valuable land around the Metro site.

The city also is betting that the federal government will transfer, cost-free, a small parcel of land it owns at the ballpark site. Pending legislation in Congress would require the city to pay for the parcel, which has a market value of more than $11 million.

Some members of the council suggested that building a stadium near the current site of RFK Stadium would be cheaper and said it was time to consider a move.

“I don’t want to be sitting up here in another month or two going over this again,” said Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp. “If there can’t be the type of changes necessary to build that stadium, it is time to cut our losses. I don’t want it sugarcoated. If it’s over, it’s over.”

D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission chairman Mark Tuohey replied: “We’re not coming back to you, Mrs. Cropp, we’re not. This stadium is not going to be a bee in your bonnet. We’re not going to be able to build at RFK any cheaper.”

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