- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 11, 2005

Talks between District officials and Major League Baseball over a lease for the new $535million ballpark for the Washington Nationals are moving slowly, with face-to-face meetings to take place in Washington perhaps as soon as this week.

Baseball has insisted an ownership group for the Nationals will not be announced until a lease has been signed.

“Major League Baseball wants to have the lease done and the construction/administration agreement done before they announce the new owners,” D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission chairman Mark Tuohey said. “We’re working as quickly as we can.”

Meanwhile, William Collins, who is leading one of the bidding groups with Sallie Mae chairman Albert Lord, said there have been no talks with Jeff Smulyan despite rumors the former Seattle Mariners owner has been prodded by baseball officials to merge with the Collins-Lord group.

“We recognize that Jeff Smulyan has significant respect in baseball,” Collins said. “But since we have filed our applications, there has been no contact.”

Smulyan could not be reached for comment.

Under the terms of the bidding process, no contact can take place between competing groups without permission from MLB.

The selection process has been slowed in part because of the lack of a finalized lease deal. Tuohey said he could not give a date when the lease would be finished but it was not “unreasonable” to believe it would be completed and signed by the end of the month.

“We hope it will be done maybe after that,” he said. “We are moving along with several documents, the construction/administration agreement being one, the ground lease and the overall lease. There are a lot of issues, and we’re getting through them one at a time. We’re going to be working this weekend. We’ll be working through next week. I can’t give you a date yet, but it is going to get done. We’re going to have some face to face meetings in Washington.”

Smulyan is the owner of Emmis Communications, a media company prominent in radio and television. He is based in Indianapolis, and sources familiar with the bidding have said local ownership and minority representation will be the strongest factors in selecting an owner for the Nationals.

Eight groups are bidding for the former Montreal Expos franchise, which baseball’s other 29 clubs bought in 2002 for $120million. Tomorrow is the deadline for the eight groups to provide MLB with additional bidding information, although sources familiar with the bidding said the selection already has been narrowed to three.

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