Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Opponents of publicly financing the Washington Nationals ballpark criticized D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp yesterday for “caving in” to Major League Baseball.

“In the end, she opted for guaranteeing the city would get a baseball team by sacrificing the guarantee for private financing,” said Ed Lazere, a leader of No D.C. Taxes for Baseball, a coalition of civic groups against the stadium deal.

“It’s a step back and a deal that she negotiated,” he said.

Whether the compromise will hurt Mrs. Cropp’s mayoral ambitions might depend on the feasibility of securing private financing for the stadium. One proposal involves the issuance of revenue bonds against curbside parking around the stadium.

The proposal is not popular with Mrs. Cropp or detractors who say that brokering public parking spaces is tantamount to public financing.

Last week, Mrs. Cropp, at-large Democrat, became the darling of ballpark opponents when she risked losing the team by making the stadium construction contingent on private investors paying nearly $140 million of the estimated $435.2 million project.

Baseball officials demanded the city unconditionally guarantee the construction of the 41,000-seat ballpark on the Anacostia River waterfront in Southeast.

Mrs. Cropp this week stopped MLB from yanking the Nationals out of the city by rescinding the private-financing requirement. The reversal made her a hero to sports fans but left some of the tax-dollar watchdogs feeling betrayed.

“She took a courageous stand, but in the end she caved in,” said Malik Z. Shabazz, national attorney for the New Black Panther Party, a militant black power group that has a strong presence in Southeast and was at the forefront of the stadium opposition.

Mr. Shabazz and other ballpark opponents said the final deal supported by Mrs. Cropp was basically the same as the original deal struck by D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams, a Democrat.

“Despite all the maneuverings and the politics, it appears pretty clear we are right where we were in the beginning,” Mr. Shabazz said. “[Mrs. Cropp] could have and should have stuck to her guns. But in the end she was under tremendous political pressure.”

Still, Cropp spokesman Mark F. Johnson said the public feedback her office is hearing is practically all positive — a drastic change from the racial slurs and death threats Mrs. Cropp received last week.

“Suddenly, as of yesterday, the e-mails we get in this office went from naughty to nice,” Mr. Johnson said. ” ‘Who knew we could get this good a deal?’ That is what people are saying. People really think that Linda Cropp saved the day.”

Mr. Johnson said many residents seem to appreciate that Mrs. Cropp’s hard-line stance with baseball officials won concessions from MLB to reduce the city’s cost.

Baseball officials agreed to share the insurance premiums to cover potential stadium cost overruns. They also reduced the penalty against the District from $19 million to $5.3 million if the city cannot build the ballpark by March 1, 2008.

If the stadium is more than a year late, however, the Nationals could still seek up to $19 million.

Mrs. Cropp even scored points with some members of No D.C. Taxes for Baseball.

“I think that her digging in her heels at the point at which she did enriched the debate,” said Sister Mary Ann Luby of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. “It just didn’t have the outcome I wanted.”

Meanwhile, Mrs. Cropp will continue to push for private investment to further reduce the city’s share. She has said that private money could conceivably cover $280 million of the cost.

“We are not giving up the whole quest for private financing,” Mr. Johnson said. “Linda Cropp is still sticking to her guns that we find at least 50 percent private financing, if not more.”

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