- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 8, 2005

A new owner for the Washington Nationals probably will not be chosen at next week’s meetings of club owners because Major League Baseball is still working to finish a ballpark lease agreement with the District.

MLB and city officials had hoped to finalize the terms of a lease for the Nationals’ ballpark last week and vote on an owner by the Nov. 16-17 sessions. Though considerable progress was made during two days of intense talks last week, the parties still disagree on some minor issues. Thus, the time line for the announcement of an owner has been extended at least a week, people with knowledge of the negotiations said.

“I’m very skeptical that a decision will be made before the owners’ meeting,” said a source close to the process who spoke on condition of anonymity because talks are ongoing.

Even if the lease agreement is finished in the next few days, MLB commissioner Bud Selig likely will want to meet with his ownership choice one last time before scheduling a vote before the league’s executive council. It’s also unclear how much the city and MLB will be able to talk in the next week because some MLB officials are attending a meeting of general managers in California.

District mayor Anthony A. Williams said last week he expected the Nationals to have a new owner by Thanksgiving. That goal still appears realistic because the lease agreement must be completed by early December for the District to obtain financing for the $535million ballpark by year’s end.

One undecided issue in the lease talks has been determining how to securitize ballpark revenue streams — like the team’s annual rent payment — to ensure the city can get investment grade ratings on the bonds used to finance the stadium. The parties also are debating about what role the new owner would play in the design of the ballpark and development of the surrounding area in Southeast.

It is still unclear which group MLB will choose to own the Nationals, though three are considered front-runners among the eight that bid. MLB is said to be giving a strong look to a group led by area businessmen Fred Malek and Jeffrey Zients; another led by the Lerner family, which owns a large real estate company in Bethesda; and a third headed by Jeff Smulyan, a communications executive from Indianapolis who once owned the Seattle Mariners.

Another bid led by developer Franklin Haney is also considered a strong candidate. Haney increased his profile recently by offering to pay for any cost overruns for the stadium.

The Malek group has been heavily endorsed by Williams and other city leaders because the group was influential in luring baseball to the city. Smulyan is believed to have the most contacts within MLB, and the Lerner group has gained notice because it has few partners and could make team decisions quickly.

Selig has asked all bidders whether they would be willing to combine their bids with another, though so far no mergers have developed.

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