SBJ/December 26, 2005 - January 1, 2006/Facilities

Ballpark controversy in D.C. refuses to take a holiday

Both Major League Baseball and the Washington, D.C., Council are officially shut down this week for the holidays, but each side is still scrambling to save a once-certain stadium deal for the Washington Nationals that has devolved into chaos.

A decisive showdown is now set for early January after district Mayor Anthony Williams moved to delay a critical vote on the Nationals’ stadium lease after it became clear he didn’t yet hold the seven council votes needed for passage.

Williams and other proponents of the Nationals’ ballpark last week admitted their failure to sell effectively the merits of the stadium project to their opponents and now are pursuing a heightened effort to shift votes. The strategy will likely include securing trade-offs, such as votes and money, for other council pet projects, in exchange for a “yes” vote on the ballpark.

Mayor Anthony Williams is trying to sway
council members to support a stadium deal.

“We need to make a few more changes to assure wavering council members that this lease is in the best interests of the city,” Williams said.

The standoff — arriving four months after D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission Chairman Mark Tuohey predicted the lease would be done by Labor Day — revolves around money: Much of the council believes the stadium project has spiraled out of fiscal control.

The council last year approved $535 million in public stadium financing, but recent estimates now peg the facility’s cost at $667 million. Not only is the difference between the two figures at issue, but also cost overruns. The relocation deal with MLB calls for the district to pay those expenses, but concerns exist that overruns will skyrocket as construction material costs soar and Washington moves uncomfortably toward the scheduled ballpark opening in March 2008.

MLB executives last week were described as furious at the council vote delay, as that same relocation deal calls for the lease to be approved by Dec. 31. An arbitration process is now being contemplated by baseball.

“MLB has done everything the [Baseball Stadium Agreement] has required and … much more,” MLB President Bob DuPuy said in a letter to council chairwoman Linda Cropp. “In arbitration, all prior concessions by MLB would be revisited.”

Meanwhile, infighting among the council itself has escalated, with some members accusing others of publicly misrepresenting their positions on the stadium financing issue.

“I don’t know how you make a deal with these people,” said one baseball source of the district government. “Linda Cropp says a $20 million contribution will get this done, it is agreed to, and then just days later we’re told it’s still not enough and they want something else. And it doesn’t stop.”

The friction continues to hamper the day-to-day operations of the Nationals, owned by MLB since early 2002. Free agents have steadily spurned the club and its uncertain state, the latest being pitcher and recent Toronto signee A.J. Burnett.

More importantly, baseball sources said the delays will result in the 2006 season opening without a new owner having control of the Nationals. No selection will be made until the lease is approved, with a standard approval and review process to follow.

Eight groups have bid for the club, expected to sell for at least $450 million.

One baseball source described the ownership search as currently “dead in the water,” though MLB last week made a repeated call for the bidders to not insert themselves into the lease talks.

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