Thursday, December 23, 2004

The D.C. Council’s tension-filled approval of the District’s stadium financing plan was merely a prelude for the next steps of development for the city’s planned ballpark in Southeast.

The next 90 days will be a frenetic period filled by work to prepare RFK Stadium for baseball, the start of negotiations between the District and landowners in the desired site for the new stadium, and a formal process by city officials to receive and evaluate private financing offers.

While the status of baseball in Washington no longer is in immediate doubt, the upcoming period will significantly influence whether the stadium project will stay on target, how it will be paid for and the quality of the fan and team experience at 43-year-old RFK.

“A lot of hard work lies ahead of us,” said District Mayor Anthony A. Williams.

Most immediately, Tuesday’s final council approval of an amended stadium bill gives the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission the green light to proceed fully on an $18.4million renovation of RFK, where the Washington Nationals will play for three seasons.

Before council approval of the stadium financing package, which included funding for the RFK work, commission executives had completed about half of the needed design work. The other half will be done over the next several weeks.

More dramatically, an excavation of the existing playing field will begin in a matter of days. New grass will be installed in late February or early March.

After the excavation, the commission and a hired team of consultants and contractors will wrestle with a diverse collection of needed fixes to the stadium, including the reconstruction of the visiting team dugout, installment of press box wiring and TV camera positions, improvements to heating and air conditioning systems, and ultimately the creation of the baseball field itself.

Looming just 112 days ahead is the Nationals’ home opener April14.

“Every day is going to be important now,” said Allen Y. Lew, commission chief executive officer. “Clearly, we don’t have the luxury of stretching this out.”

Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat, was far more blunt, saying, “I have to tell you, I was just over there and it needs a lot of work.”

One thorny issue — the sharing of RFK by the Nationals and D.C. United — has found a solution through the use of temporary trays of sod for the soccer games. The portable grass will cover the infield basepaths.

Soon after the holidays, District officials will begin formal negotiations with more than two dozen owners of property within the desired footprint near the Anacostia River waterfront for the new stadium. If an impasse results, the city retains power of eminent domain.

Through its contract with Major League Baseball, the District must have the stadium land acquired and rezoned by Dec.31, 2005.

The most prominent landowner in the area, Robert Siegel, is striking a slightly more conciliatory tone with the council’s approval of stadium financing in the books. Siegel, an owner of several gay nightclubs in the area, has hired a team of lawyers and plans to challenge attempts to seize his property.

At the same time, Siegel has begun to think about relocating within the District and said he is open to making a deal with the city. On top of an unspecified but certainly robust amount of money for his 11 properties in the area, Siegel wants relocation assistance for his businesses and says he needs to stay a landowner rather than become a tenant in another location.

“I do have a strategy, and I’m going to fight eminent domain,” Siegel said. “I still feel this is the wrong location for this stadium. But I do feel I’m going to have to move.”

The financing plans for the stadium will become clearer by March15, when the city’s chief financial officer, Natwar Gandhi, is required to give the council and Williams a report of private financing offers submitted as possibilities to reduce the city’s investment in the stadium.

Council chairman Linda W. Cropp, who cast the deciding vote in favor of the stadium legislation, ushered through an amendment that creates a search process for private financing that will pay for at least 50 percent of the stadium construction costs. If at least one of the submitted offers meets that threshold, Williams will have until March30 to submit legislation that formally implements the funding.

Already, city offices have been flooded with more than three dozen offers of private financing, a number expected to soar as a formal request for proposals is issued.

Gandhi will have more stadium work to do as the spring approaches. The council’s amended stadium legislation also requires him to compile a second cost estimate on building a stadium at the Southeast site. His first estimate in November was $535million. If his second tally surpasses that sum by $50million or more, that will trigger a joint search by the Nationals and the District for a new and cheaper site.

That second cost estimate is due in May, but sports commission officials ideally would like it in March.

Running on a parallel track to the stadium development will be MLB’s ongoing efforts to reach a compensation agreement with Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos, as well as find new owners for the Nationals.

The sale of the team, however, will not happen until the Angelos talks are complete, because they involve the potential creation of a new regional sports network to air games of both the Washington and Baltimore clubs. With the Nationals’ likely revenues from local TV still undetermined, prospective buyers have found it impossible to place a precise value on the team.

MLB officials would like to complete the Angelos negotiations sometime next month and have a new Nationals owner by April. Both timetables are in doubt.

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