Tuesday, December 21, 2004

The District’s relocation deal with Major League Baseball is back on track.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams struck an agreement late last night with D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp to include private stadium financing for a planned ballpark in Southeast without threatening the entire relocation pact.

The new terms again call for 50 percent of the ballpark-construction costs to be funded with private money. Mrs. Cropp, however, agreed to remove the legislative language killing the deal without those funds in place. Also in the agreement are substantial reductions in the city’s potential risk of stadium cost overruns and compensatory damages if the ballpark is not completed in time.

The agreement again guarantees a new stadium will be built near the Anacostia River, a measure critical to Major League Baseball and its efforts to move the Montreal Expos to Washington and find new owners for the club.

“The hard work we have done has come to a positive conclusion,” Mrs. Cropp said. “We went a long way to reduce the risk and cost of this project to the District of Columbia.”

The Cropp-Williams deal represents a crucial revision of a surprise amendment ushered through last week by Mrs. Cropp. MLB called that amendment “wholly unacceptable” and suspended the business operations of the Washington Nationals.

The Cropp amendment and entire stadium bill will be reconsidered formally today as part of the council’s scheduled legislative meeting.

“I applaud the chairman for reducing the cost to the city and stimulating additional investment in the city,” Mr. Williams said. “This has only confirmed our belief in this project and in this site.”

MLB officials — notably its president, Bob DuPuy — were in frequent contact with the District via conference call and have signed off on the changes, Mr. Williams said. Recently suspended business operations for the Nationals likely will be resumed shortly.

Mr. Williams and Mrs. Cropp met twice yesterday for a total of 75 minutes. The sessions marked their first face-to-face talks since Mrs. Cropp enraged Mr. Williams with her late-arriving amendment. In recent days, however, the mayor carried a more deferential tone in the hopes of striking an accord with Mrs. Cropp to save the deal.

The late-night announcement, however, was delayed briefly as the two sides haggled over the proper room in the John A. Wilson Building in which to hold it.

Through the negotiations, the city’s exposure to legal risk if the stadium is not completed on time was reduced from $19 million in the first year to $5.3 million. The $19 million sum agreed upon last week for the second potential year of risk stands unchanged. MLB and the city now will share equally all insurance premiums to protect against cost overruns.

The precise source of private stadium funds for construction has not been finalized, but D.C. officials have been flooded with more than 40 financing proposals. About five are being studied with particular scrutiny. The most likely source of private funds, however, is a curbside parking program in which revenue from computerized meters would be used to help pay off ballpark-construction costs.

The mayor and his staff have spent the last several days seeking preliminary certification on some of the offers from the office of Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi as a show of good faith toward Mrs. Cropp.

If no certifiable source of private funds is found, public dollars from the previous financing framework will serve as the option of last resort. But city officials feel strongly enough about the parking proposal that it will stand as the likely default source of private dollars absent any other realistic option.

More broadly, Mr. Williams said yesterday he believes “there’s a blurry line [between] what’s public and what’s private” in the stadium financing. Administration staffers have opined that more than half of the stadium is already slated to be funded with private dollars between annual lease payments due from the Nationals and a gross-receipts tax on large businesses.

But the mayor added, “Everybody is in favor of improving the city’s position in this deal. There’s no dispute about that.”

The city has until Dec. 31 to produce legislation for stadium financing that meets MLB’s approval.

The Cropp-Williams deal caps a turbulent two-month period in which the stadium legislation came close to dying several times, Mrs. Cropp made an aborted attempt to move the stadium site to RFK Stadium and the ballpark bill received two narrow approvals from the council.

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