Time running out for D.C. to smooth Expos' move

Plan to publicly finance new downtown stadium needs support of council

September 28, 2004|By Kimberly A.C. Wilson and David Schoetz | Kimberly A.C. Wilson and David Schoetz,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - City Councilman Jack Evans has been here before, on the yes side of a contentious plan that promotes a publicly financed building as critical to Washington's revitalization.

The first time was 1995, when the council voted to absorb a share of the cost to build MCI Center for the Wizards basketball team and the Capitals hockey team. Three years later, a council vote paved the way for the new convention center with a $650 million package of taxes and fees.

It's hard to find anyone in city government who would call either development anything short of a spectacular success.

Now Evans, chairman of the council's finance committee, is hoping history proves the charm once more. A leading booster of a plan to move the Montreal Expos to town, Evans wants to build them a ballpark near downtown Washington.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams has proposed issuing $440 million in bonds the city would repay through stadium rental fees, concession taxes, ticket and merchandise sales, parking fees and, most of all, a revenue tax on the city's 2,000 largest businesses. A majority of the City Council, which must approve any deal, is thought to favor the plan. But the numbers are close.

Williams and the City Council say Major League Baseball's proposal must come by the end of this week to pave the way for legislation to finance the new ballpark and pay for renovations for the team's interim park, RFK Stadium.

Deadlines for baseball owners to come to a decision have come and gone over the past several months. But further delays past early October could dash hopes to have the Montreal Expos begin the 2005 season in April as the capital's new baseball team, said Stephen Green, Williams' special assistant for planning and economic development.

"`Seal its fate' might not be too strong a way of putting it," Green said. "If they go past the end of next week to make their decision, that would require the council to go into a truncated legislative process. It would delay this by probably a year, effectively."

Evans says he knows the battle is far from over. "Until [baseball owners] commit to Washington and say, `We're coming here,' this is all in the abstract," he said.

A few council members have made their support clear now or in the past: Evans, Harold Brazil, Kevin P. Chavous. Some members, such as Carol Schwartz and Jim Graham, say they are undecided. A few aren't talking. And in the wings, three primary election winners who are sure bets to take office in January - former Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr., Kwame Brown and Vincent Gray - oppose the use of tax revenue to fund a stadium.

A spokesman said that Brazil, a supporter of public financing for a stadium who lost his seat, would do what it takes to push the legislation through the council before his term ends Dec. 31 and the three new stadium opponents take office.

Schwartz sent an e-mail to a constituent last week explaining why she remains on the fence:

"If financing in the final package is based only on a rental fee and on receipts from concessions, parking and merchandise [revenue which would not exist if a stadium was not built], and if larger businesses agree to help by paying a tax that would not conflict with other taxes we might need to impose, I could be supportive. If, however, I feel that the final package would burden District taxpayers and drain money from much-needed programs, I will likely oppose the deal."

The lines were drawn just as deeply, Evans recalled, before the council voted to finance millions of dollars' worth of street and utility improvements for MCI Center in 1995 and the new D.C. convention center three years later.

"People forget this," Evans said. "They forget that it was a big fight to get that built. It's going to take a fight to get there."

As with many recently built ballparks across the country, from Denver's Coors Field to Baltimore's Camden Yards, backers of the project are taking that fight to a depressed neighborhood ripe for economic growth.

The favored 20-acre stadium site, near the intersection of South Capitol and M streets, hugs the snaking Anacostia River just where it breaks from the Potomac. The area is mostly industrial - an asphalt company, a salvage plant, a taxicab garage, auto body shops - broken by aging strands of rowhouses and the occasional security-fenced liquor store. The Navy Yard Metro station is a block away. The dome of the Capitol peeks over the city skyline.

District Transmissions has been here, on N and First streets SE, for 31 years. Antonio Woodridge was 3 when his father started the business. But he steers clear of nostalgia when asked about the fate of the family shop if a new ballpark should rise a block away.

"We've been here a very long time, but nothing is going to stop change," he said.

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