Friday, February 10, 2006

After voting down a stadium lease Tuesday night, the D.C. Council worked its way to a deal early Wednesday morning that prevented Major League Baseball from taking the city to binding arbitration. But the late-night session only yielded slight improvements on a bad deal. The amendment capping public funds at $611 million is little cause for celebration since the stadium will be publicy financed.

Although baseball officials claim to be “very concerned” with this agreement, the deal remains in MLB’s best interests because its means the owners do not have to pay for the new stadium and MLB keeps the franchise in Washington, where it is worth at least $450 million.

Council members Kwame Brown, Marion Barry and Vincent Gray opposed the stadium deal while campaigning in 2004. Along with Carol Schwartz, Messrs. Brown, Barry and Gray were considered the swing votes on the Council; all four voted in favor of the deal with the public-funding cap Wednesday morning.

Throughout the process, from the original bidding for the Expos through the Council debates this week, D.C. leaders have failed to really capitalize on the bargaining power that comes with the high value of its region. The concessions won from MLB — if MLB approves the lease and these concessions are, indeed, won — are proof of the Council’s weak-kneed posturing: $20 million for the $300 million “hard cost” of stadium construction; 10,000 free tickets a year; two-thirds of parking revenue (but only on non-game days); and “scores of community appearances.” Those concessions hardly make a deal befitting one of the top markets in the country. (This was immediately evident when Washington offered a larger subsidy than its leading competitors — Portland, Ore., and Las Vegas, neither of which was nearly as appealing to MLB — during the bidding for the Expos franchise.)

It’s unlikely that MLB will announce the Nationals’ owner until after stadium construction has begun, which can’t happen until the District secures the land — 14 acres, being acquired through an eminent-domain claim in D.C. Superior Court — at the South Capitol Street site. The court ruling is expected near the end of the month, but MLB shouldn’t wait. Now that the Council has approved a lease agreement, MLB needs to sign it and name an owner.

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