Friday, April 9, 2004

The District would fully fund a new ballpark on the grounds of RFK Stadium under a $340million proposal Mayor Anthony A. Williams plans to submit to Major League Baseball in the next few weeks.

The proposal is designed to meet the demands of Major League Baseball (MLB) for a new stadium financed entirely with public funds and end delay on a decision on the fate of the Montreal Expos, the franchise Mr. Williams hopes will be awarded to Washington.

“We have put together a new package for a fully financed stadium at RFK, and what we want to provide is an unassailably great offer and finally get this done,” Mr. Williams said yesterday. The proposal marks a vast change from one submitted last year that called for a $436million stadium to be built on New York Avenue NE, a plan that required about $125million to be provided by the ownership group awarded the baseball franchise.

D.C. officials have requested a meeting as soon as possible with MLB’s relocation committee and hope to present their plan within a month.

The proposal calls for a baseball-only stadium to be built on the parking lots north of RFK Stadium. The Expos would play in RFK Stadium until the new ballpark is completed, which would likely take three years. The fate of RFK Stadium has not been decided and depends in part on the ongoing negotiations of Major League Soccer’s D.C. United for a new soccer-specific stadium.

“I certainly look forward to hearing [the proposal],” said John McHale, MLB executive vice president for administration and a member of the relocation committee. The RFK site was one of five presented to MLB officials early last year. However, it was not the preferred choice of city officials or of the Washington Baseball Club, the prospective ownership group led by financier Fred Malek.

The RFK site does not offer as much potential for spinoff commercial development as proposed sites along New York Avenue or at Benjamin Banneker Park in Southwest.

However, building on RFK grounds was seen by city officials as the best way to break a stalemate with MLB, which refused to waver on its demand for full public financing. The other sites were too expensive for the District to develop without the addition of private funds.

“This is the best and most far-reaching proposal the city has put together,” Mr. Malek said. “There’s a real sense of progress here.”

The Expos are owned by MLB, an arrangement that was intended to last only for the 2002 season but now is in its third year. None of the other candidates to land the Expos — Northern Virginia; Norfolk; Portland, Ore.; Las Vegas; Monterrey, Mexico; and San Juan, Puerto Rico — have met MLB’s requirement for full public financing of a stadium.

During MLB’s ownership, the Expos have split “home” games between Montreal and San Juan and lost star players such as Vladimir Guerrero and Javier Vazquez because of the club’s financial weakness. The club has accumulated more than $60million in operating losses while owned by MLB.

The proposal for a fully-financed ballpark at RFK grew out of months of below-the-radar discussions between the city and Mr. Malek’s group about dramatically renovating the 43-year-old facility for use as a permanent ballpark.

City officials opposed that idea but found that building a ballpark on the RFK property could be done for much less money than on New York Avenue, which, in any case, was a plan that had clearly failed to win over MLB executives.

The financing structure of the new proposal is largely the same as in the proposal presented to MLB last year. Funds would come primarily from revenue bonds supported by a tax on the gross receipts of large D.C. businesses and taxes on ballpark-related commerce such as ticket and merchandise sales and parking.

Jack Evans, chairman of the D.C. Council’s finance committee, had opposed such a tax. However, Mr. Evans’ opposition softened after meetings with Mr. Williams’ staff.

The gross-receipts tax was used by the District in the mid-1990s to help fund infrastructure costs for MCI Center.

“It’s essentially the same level of public commitment as last year, between $335million and $340million,” said Steve Green, special assistant in the Department of Planning and Economic Development. “The difference is that by using [the RFK] site, where we would not incur land costs, and lowering a lot of the other development costs, we’re able to get that much higher level of [public] financing.”

Among those cost adjustments are eliminating the construction of a parking garage — RFK currently has surface parking for more than 10,000 cars — and designing a ballpark with three levels of seating instead of four, as was the case in previous preliminary models.

MLB officials intend to select a home for the Expos by July’s All-Star Game. Industry chatter, however, recently has suggested baseball will again fail to meet its internal timetable, talk that MLB Commissioner Bud Selig recently tried to quell.

“This is a big decision, but I’m very hopeful that we’ll have a new home for the Montreal Expos by midsummer. And we should have,” Mr. Selig recently told ESPN.

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