Friday, August 10, 2007

The Washington Nationals have contributed less than $8 million toward the construction of their new ballpark in the District, though club officials publicly said the team would spend as much as $50 million on stadium improvements.

The $611 million, city-funded ballpark along South Capitol Street is on schedule to be completed by March of next year, and it appears likely the stadium will be built with just a handful of upgrades and enhancements from the Nationals.

The team’s contributions include between $2.5 million and $3 million for an expansion of the ballpark’s center-field restaurant, about $2 million to improve the stadium suites and about $3 million to upgrade the scoreboard and video display.

The stadium is being funded largely by D.C. bonds backed by a ballpark fee on many businesses, taxes on concessions and tickets, a utility tax and an annual rent payment from the team.

The Nationals are required by their agreement with the District to provide $20 million by the end of the year to help the city complete the ballpark, and the team has contributed about $3 million toward insurance and various inspection and certification fees.

That money, however, is considered separate from the “tens of millions” for enhancements the club said it would provide.

The Nationals still could provide funds for improvements made at a later date. However, D.C. officials said they were not aware of any such plans, and the amount of money spent or committed by the club thus far appears in conflict with statements made by team officials earlier this year that indicated a substantial infusion of cash from the Nationals was on the way.

“The design that we were given was so far along that we couldn’t make major changes, but we did feel it needed a lot more pizzazz and a lot more in the way of entertainment elements,” Nationals President Stan Kasten said in an interview in March. “That requires an expenditure of a lot of cash by these owners, and they’ve stepped up — tens of millions of dollars — because we know we only have one chance to get it right, and so it’s really important to not cut corners.”

Mr. Kasten made a similar statement when he announced the sale of suites at the new ballpark in March. When he announced season-ticket plans and prices in June, he said the team would spend more than $50 million on stadium enhancements.

Mark Lerner, one of the club’s principal owners, discussed a contribution of about $30 million in reports last year.

Nationals officials, however, this week declined to discuss the club’s expenditures on the stadium or plans for future spending.

“For now, we have no additional comment about ownership’s contribution to the ballpark,” a spokesman said.

All contributions from the Nationals are recorded by the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission in a monthly summary of the stadium’s budget, which tracks every dollar spent on the project. Any changes or improvements to the ballpark requested by the team must be approved by the commission, which is in charge of ensuring the project remains on schedule and within budget.

Sources in the District said any significant changes or upgrades requested by the team at this point likely would prevent the ballpark from being completed on time.

Those same sources, however, said it is possible the Nationals have spent or will spend millions of dollars on stadium-related items that do not involve changes to the ballpark itself. The team’s hiring of an outside consultant to advise them on entertainment options at the stadium, for instance, might not be included, nor would the team’s spending of money to promote the use of Metro on game days. It also is possible, the sources said, that owners are referring to contributions that will be made in future years.

Sports commission officials also declined to comment, citing ongoing negotiations with the Lerner family on expenses relating to furniture, fixtures and equipment at the stadium.

The Nationals last month filed for arbitration to settle a dispute over those costs, which total about $9 million. It is now more likely, however, that the two sides will enter mediation, a less costly and time-consuming process.

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