Saturday, December 11, 2004

District officials are nearing an agreement with Major League Baseball to provide additional community benefits as part of the relocation deal bringing the Montreal Expos to Washington.

Both sides declined yesterday to detail the specific concessions to the District being discussed. But an announcement of the newly arrived perks is expected before the D.C. Council conducts its second vote Tuesday on financing for a planned ballpark near the Anacostia River waterfront in Southeast.

Potential benefits could include clearly delineated grants for area youth athletic fields and community centers, as well as an increase in the number of days (currently 12) the new stadium can be used by the District for non-baseball functions.

The Baseball Stadium Agreement between MLB and the District reads that the Washington team, now called the Nationals, “acknowledges a civic responsibility to promote and contribute to charitable, education and community organizations and other public works in the District.” But that responsibility is not backed by any specific dollar figures, publicly troubling several council members.

“We’re making very good progress. There are productive discussions going on,” said Mark Tuohey, chairman of the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission. “I do believe we’ll have something before the vote on Tuesday. There has been flexibility [from baseball].”

The changes could provide greater comfort for Mayor Anthony A. Williams, who escaped the council’s first vote Nov.30 with a tepid 6-4 approval with three abstentions. A second approval is widely expected, but following the vote, Council chairman Linda W. Cropp, one of the three abstentions, pressed Williams to seek the renegotiated benefits as part of a broader concern over the projected ballpark cost.

The mayor’s office pegged the cost at $435.2million. Several other estimates have soared past $500million.

Still unresolved are several bigger issues identified by Cropp and others, namely the potential sharing of cost overruns and an amendment passed by Cropp mandating the search for a new and cheaper ballpark if building at the Southeast parcel is projected to exceed $631million. Cropp also wants greater legal protection for the District should construction of the new stadium fall behind schedule through no fault of the city.

“The overruns are one of the areas we’ve discussed,” Tuohey said. “We’re talking about a number of issues. But I can’t say any more at this point.”

That ambiguity aside, the ongoing talks represent something of a contrast to comments made last week by MLB Commissioner Bud Selig that “we’re going to proceed with the agreement we have.”

Said John McHale Jr., MLB vice president of administration: “We’re trying to be open to what the mayor and sports commission want to talk about, but I’m not sure yet exactly where this is going to go. Everybody does want this to work, and we want to be helpful to the mayor while at the same time preserving the integrity of the deal we presented [last week] to team owners.”

Opponents to the stadium financing plan, however, remain unimpressed. Council members leading the fight against the baseball bill — Democrats Adrian Fenty and Jim Graham and independent David Catania, as well as incoming councilman Marion Barry — staged a press conference yesterday to renew publicly their objections to the deal.

Barry also is pressing his case against the current stadium deal in private meetings with Cropp and Williams.

“[The expected new benefits] are nothing more than window dressing,” Catania said. “If they actually come up with anything substantial, I’m going to be surprised. It’s just talk, and we’re being slow-walked through the vote, after which I assure you the mayor will insist any changes to the deal will make us liable for compensatory damages.”

Fenty yesterday said, as he has for several days, he believes the stadium vote will fail Tuesday, with Democrats Phil Mendelson and Kathy Patterson representing key no votes. Both council members, along with Cropp, abstained from the first vote.

“What Adrian said was wrong. Councilman Mendelson has a call into Adrian about this,” said Alec Evans, Mendelson’s spokesman. “He’s still undecided and trying to work all this out.”

Patterson remains publicly undecided.

Mendelson likely will introduce an amendment Tuesday that provides more relief for smaller companies from the gross-receipts tax on District businesses that forms the bulk of the ballpark financing package.

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