Thursday, February 3, 2005

Natwar Gandhi, the District’s chief financial officer, likely will certify at least two of eight offers of private financing for a new ballpark in Southeast, paving the way for the city to meet its target of funding half the hard construction costs with private money.

Rather than select a single plan, John Ross, senior adviser to Gandhi, said the final financing plan for the stadium probably will reflect a combination of offers. The 50 percent threshold, set as a goal by the D.C. Council in December, translates to about $140million in private funds.

“I think we’re looking at a couple of real potentials,” Ross said of the proposals. “We’re probably going to mix and match and take the best components from multiple bids. Some of these don’t get [to the target figure] by themselves, so we’ll try to put some things together.”

Gandhi must submit his report on the offers to the D.C. Council by March15. At that time, Mayor Anthony A. Williams must endorse at least one certified bid and submit it for council approval. In the meantime, executives from Gandhi’s office, along with the help of Deloitte & Touche, will conduct interviews with members of all eight bids.

Ross declined to say which offers were under foremost consideration. But the group of proposals includes a master development plan for the ballpark neighborhood from Georgetown builder Herb Miller and another bid from the Cleveland-based Gates Group calling for the creation of a curbside parking program around the stadium.

While the city should meet its funding target, the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission ended fiscal 2004 with an operating loss of $2.9million, a significant drop from the $336,000 operating profit projected last summer.

The loss, reflecting generally accepted accounting principles, owes to several factors, including legal expenses stemming from the relocation pursuit of the Montreal Expos and depreciation costs of $1.87million. The commission ended fiscal year 2003 with an operating loss of $5.36million.

“We’re a little off from where we thought we’d be, but we still think we’re generally on target financially,” said Mark Tuohey, sports commission chairman. “Much of this is only a paper loss as we’ll be getting some reimbursable money back [from the city baseball fund created to pay for the stadium development].”

To buttress the commission’s revenues, Tuohey and others are exploring an exterior advertising program for RFK Stadium that could generate as much as $1.5million this year. While the commission tendered all sponsorship rights within the stadium to the Washington Nationals as part of the relocation agreement, advertising revenues generated from signage on the facility’s exterior and in the parking lots do not go to the club.

The commission will be receiving more than $15million in lease payments from the Nationals during their planned three-year stay at RFK Stadium. The sum is roughly equal to what the commission would have reaped through other events had the Expos not moved to the District. But the Nationals represent a much more high-profile and guaranteed source of funds compared to a series of concerts, festivals and truck shows.

Nationals officials are planning to begin sales of partial season tickets early next week, an event certain to boost the team’s already burgeoning revenues. Partial plans will be sold in blocks of 20 and 40 games and will be confined primarily to RFK’s upper deck.

The lower deck is nearly sold out through sales of full season tickets. Tomorrow is the deadline for full season ticket holders to pay off their outstanding balances.

The Nationals have sold more than 18,000 season tickets. At this point last year, that sum would have been 12th best in major league baseball, said Kevin Uhlich, the club’s chief operating officer. The total also translates to a paid attendance of nearly 1.5million for 2005, better than any of the Montreal Expos’ final eight seasons in Quebec.

Single-game tickets are slated to go on sale in early March.

No ticket has been sought as much as the team’s April 14 home opener; executives from both the Nationals and the sports commission say they have been overwhelmed with requests. The sports commission retains a 50-seat section in the RFK Stadium mezzanine for the use of its senior officials, Mayor Williams and other city leaders but is seeking to buy several hundred more seats for the opener.

“The Hill, the White House, everybody. They’re all after tickets, hundreds of them,” said Tuohey, who will testify today before the D.C. Council’s committee on government operations to discuss the hiring of local, small and disadvantaged companies to work on the RFK Stadium renovation.

A series of other events is being planned for the days surrounding the season opener. A kids’ day April 16 will feature the unveiling of the Nationals’ new mascot. A concert and fireworks display is planned for April 15, an off-day on the team’s schedule, and the commission also will be involved in the city’s Emancipation Day celebrations.

What radio station the opener will be on remains unclear. Nationals executives say there has been no substantial progress in talks to obtain distribution for the team since Clear Channel Communications, owner of WTEM (AM-980) and seven other area stations, walked away from a deal late last month.

“I’m reluctant to say much because I thought we had a deal before,” team president Tony Tavares said. “But we are still working that issue very hard.”

Meanwhile, Tavares said he and other Nationals officials have begun to sift through resumes and audition tapes for announcers and technical staffers to work the team’s broadcasts.

The Baltimore Orioles yesterday signed a one-year deal to stay with their longtime flagship, WBAL (AM-1090).

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