Thursday, December 16, 2004

D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp yesterday said she will not reopen legislation next week requiring the District to include private funds to build a ballpark in Southeast, effectively killing the deal negotiated between Mayor Anthony A. Williams and Major League Baseball.

“Right now, the legislation stands as it passed,” Mrs. Cropp, at-large Democrat, said yesterday.

Baseball officials on Wednesday said the deal passed by the council was “wholly unacceptable” and did not back down yesterday.

“It’s like a heart attack around here,” said one baseball executive at MLB’s New York headquarters. “This is definitely serious. If the District thinks we don’t have other options or we’re engaged in a game of chicken, they’re sorely mistaken.”

Baseball officials have begun offering refunds for buyers of season tickets and closed the temporary retail outlet for Washington Nationals merchandise in the parking lot of RFK Stadium.

The move followed the league’s decision on Wednesday to suspend the Nationals’ business and marketing operations indefinitely and cancel the planned unveiling of the team’s new uniforms.

“There is a significant problem with the uncertainty of funding for the stadium,” said John McHale Jr., MLB vice president of administration.

Mrs. Cropp said she hoped MLB officials would reconsider and accept the current legislation that includes a requirement for private financing. She said she hoped they would be willing to make a “good faith” gesture and extend the deadline beyond Dec. 31 for the District to come up with the financing for the stadium on the Anacostia River waterfront.

“If they are not, the legislation is what it is,” she said at a press conference yesterday at the Wilson Building.

The showdown with baseball began when Mrs. Cropp tacked an amendment onto the stadium bill late Tuesday night that requires private investors to pay at least half of the hard stadium costs, about $140 million.

The city would pick up the tab for the remainder of the stadium work, such as roadwork, parking facilities and land acquisition. However, if private financing cannot be secured, the city would not be required to build the ballpark.

The entire cost of the project is estimated at $435.2 million.

Under the deal to which Mr. Williams and MLB agreed in September, the District guaranteed to publicly finance the ballpark’s construction.

Yesterday’s impasse had Mr. Williams scrambling to come up with a private-financing plan to satisfy Mrs. Cropp, but it seems doubtful that MLB would accept any deal in which the city did not fully guarantee the stadium’s construction.

Still, Mr. Williams remained optimistic that the city can meet the Dec. 31 deadline to seal a baseball deal.

Council members Jack Evans, Harold Brazil and Vincent B. Orange Sr. said at a separate press conference at the Wilson Building that baseball officials are not opposed to private investors contributing to the stadium project. But baseball wants the city’s assurance that the stadium will be built, and Mrs. Cropp’s amendment removed that guarantee by voiding the deal if private financing fails.

“Mrs. Cropp came up with the private-financing deal before and she couldn’t find [the financing] and the mayor couldn’t find it,” said Mr. Orange, Ward 5 Democrat. “What makes anybody think we’re going to find it in two weeks?”

If baseball does not reconsider and accept private financing, the only way the deal could be saved is if Mrs. Cropp reopens the legislation at a council meeting on Tuesday.

Phyllis Jones, secretary of the council, said Mrs. Cropp is the only person who can put the stadium legislation on the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting. A simple majority of the 13-member council then would have to vote for a “motion to reconsider” the legislation, and the majority would have to vote for any amended version.

However, if the legislation is reconsidered, any council member could introduce amendments, and the session could resemble Tuesday’s marathon, 12-hour meeting.

Mrs. Cropp would have to provide 24 hours’ notice that she was adding the legislation to the agenda, so it will be clear by Monday at 10 a.m. whether she has any plans to reconsider.

The council chairman said yesterday that she introduced the amendment because baseball officials had refused to entertain her concerns about limiting the risk to D.C. taxpayers.

“Every time we tried to make changes to the agreement, we were told it was a ‘deal breaker,’ ” she said.

Mrs. Cropp also defended herself from criticism that she reneged on a deal that she helped broker.

“I never sat in on the negotiation meetings,” she said. “I did look at parts of the public financing. I never looked at the agreement.”

She said her role was more of a “cheerleading team” to represent the city’s enthusiasm for baseball.

However, sources familiar with the baseball negotiations say Mrs. Cropp knew what the public-financing plan entailed long before raising her last-minute objections.

In January 2003, Mrs. Cropp attended a meeting in New York where Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, a key member of MLB’s relocation committee, told her that the District must provide full public financing for the ballpark and that RFK Stadium was not an option, according to a participant in the meeting who asked not to be identified.

• Brian DeBose, Eric Fisher and Thom Loverro contributed to this report.

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