Wednesday, December 15, 2004

The D.C. Council last night gave final approval to financing for a ballpark near the Anacostia River waterfront in Southeast by a tight 7-6 vote, but only after council Chairman Linda Cropp ushered through a major amendment that mandates the inclusion of private funds to help fund the stadium construction.

The unexpected Cropp amendment, arriving near the end of more than 13 hours of often-contentious debate, mandates that at least half of hard stadium costs be paid with private funds, shocking attendees of a marathon legislative review of the stadium bill. If private funds are not found, the entire authorization of the new stadium for the Washington Nationals would be rendered null and void, once again putting the District’s future with baseball in serious doubt.

The Cropp amendment, passing by a 10-3 vote, would limit the city’s investment in the stadium itself to $142 million, representing the largest single change to an already polarizing project. The city would still cover all infrastructure costs.

“I’m still trying to figure this all out,” said Mayor Anthony A. Williams soon after watching Mrs. Cropp introduce the amendment. Mr. Williams tersely declined further comment after the vote on the amendment and entire legislation.

Said City Administrator Robert Bobb after the vote, “I think this is a huge hurdle for us. The mayor is very disappointed.”

Voting for the ballpark bill were Democrats Mrs. Cropp, Jack Evans, Harold Brazil, Kevin Chavous, Sandy Allen, Vincent B. Orange Sr. and Sharon Ambrose. Voting against were Democrats Adrian Fenty, Jim Graham, Phil Mendelson, Kathy Patterson, Republican Carol Schwartz and independent David Catania.

“I’ve never seen a legislative process so mangled and mismanaged,” Mr. Mendelson said.

Mrs. Cropp, who gave no clues to any senior D.C. official the amendment would be forthcoming, made the move on the heels of a letter from Major League Baseball outlining several changes to community benefits from the Nationals to the District.

The changes, also sought largely at the behest of Mrs. Cropp, were slated to give the District additional access to the new stadium on non-game days, extra tickets for the city’s disadvantaged youth and other delineated community benefits. But Mrs. Cropp offered a stinging rebuke of MLB’s offered givebacks, calling them far less than sufficient.

“The letter from baseball was a great disappointment,” Mrs. Cropp said. “I did not see the type and level of movement from baseball that I expected. [The letter] does not do what I thought it would do.”

Mrs. Cropp’s amendment extends another revision she passed in which she led the creation of a formal search for private financing to lower the city’s investment in the stadium. But the latest move goes one step further in which the private funds are now required, backed by the threat of voiding the legislation. In the previous version of the legislation, not finding private funds meant a simple reversion back to the public backing of stadium bonds.

“There is now an element of uncertainty now entered into this deal,” said Mr. Evans, one of three council members to vote against the Cropp amendment, joining Mr. Brazil and Mr. Orange. “If we press on this tonight, tomorrow morning MLB cannot sell [the Nationals] under conditions in which they put up the team for sale … tomorrow is going to be a difficult day.”

The amendment also represents the latest of several unexpected curveballs from Mrs. Cropp with regards to baseball. Last month, she tabled the first scheduled vote on the ballpark financing, wanted to explore a switch of sites from the Southeast waterfront to the grounds of RFK Stadium. After failing in that measure, Mrs. Cropp abstained from the first vote as a political means to press Mr. Williams to renegotiate the relocation deal with baseball.

The city has received more than 20 offers of private financing in recent weeks. None have received required certification from Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi.

“What we’re going to have to do is sit down with the CFO and establish process to work through these proposals in an expedited fashion,” Mr. Bobb said.

Mark Tuohey, chairman of the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission, communicated the late-breaking developments last night with MLB executives, but declined further comments on baseball’s response. Mr. Tuohey and Mr. Williams will hold extensive discussions with MLB today.

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