Pace is brisk in D.C. as city awaits Expos

Fans press for tickets

with MLB looking on, officials try to act quickly

October 01, 2004|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - A day after Washington was awarded a Major League Baseball team, hundreds of fans flooded city phone lines seeking tickets, and Mayor Anthony Williams began pitching his $435 million stadium financing plan by likening the proposed ballpark to ones in San Francisco and Pittsburgh that helped revive waterfront neighborhoods.

Williams met yesterday with labor leaders and neighborhood groups on the plan, under a hurried schedule in which the D.C. Council was expected to get the financing bill today, hold public hearings next month and render its verdict in December.

Major League Baseball wants to move fast. "They hope to have the new owner in place before the end of the year," Mark Tuohey, chairman of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, told reporters yesterday. "I think Major League Baseball is pretty well organized on this one and they'll do it."

Under a deal reached with baseball for the Montreal Expos, the city would finance a 41,000-seat stadium at a cost of $300.7 million, according to a budget breakdown released yesterday by the mayor's office.

The total budget would be $435.2 million when related costs are included, such as land purchasing, on-site parking and $13 million to renovate RFK Stadium, where the team will play for three years while the new facility is constructed.

Yesterday, Williams and Tuohey defended their financing plan from criticism that it is overly generous to baseball. The plan would ultimately be paid for with revenue from a gross-receipts tax on large businesses, as well as a 10 percent tax on ballpark tickets and merchandise. The general consumer sales tax in Washington is 5.75 percent.

Tuohey was asked by reporters about remarks by Virginia Gov. Mark Warner that the District beat out Virginia for baseball because Washington's plan was a comparatively sweet deal for baseball.

"Mark Warner's a good friend of mine, but he's dead wrong," Tuohey said. "They didn't lose this at all. We had a meritorious plan."

Said the mayor: "I would agree with Mark [Tuohey] that we won on all counts. It wasn't because of giveaways."

In fact, baseball wanted the deal to be even more generous to the franchise, said Steve Green, a mayoral special assistant. "They wanted the [team's] rent to be a lot less," Green said.

Under the deal, the team will sign a 30-year stadium lease and pay gradually increasing rent starting at $3.5 million a year and rising to $5.5 million by the sixth year.

The city declined to release copies of the "memorandum of understanding" with baseball or its legislation until the Council receives the documents today.

Patrick Courtney, a Major League Baseball spokesman on the relocation, said he could not comment on details of the negotiations.

Nor would he comment specifically, he said, on the speed of the sale. "These are all issues that - now that we've resolved where the team will be - will all be worked on rapidly," he said.

Baseball officials say privately that the speed of the sale will depend on how fast information is forthcoming from prospective owners, among other factors. If the sale is not finalized by January, baseball will at least aim to complete the deal by opening day.

In the meantime, tickets could be sold by the Expos organization, which need not wait for the new owners to begin marketing the team in Washington.

Tuohey and Williams are advocating for a local investors group that includes Frederic Malek, a former partner in the Texas Rangers with President George W. Bush; and Franklin Raines, the chairman and chief executive officer of Fannie Mae.

"I trust [Chicago White Sox owner] Jerry Reinsdorf to listen to us, but ultimately we realize the decision remains with Major League Baseball," Tuohey said.

In other news related to the relocation:

Negotiations continued yesterday between attorneys for Major League Baseball and Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos on an agreement to shield the Baltimore club from a drastic loss in revenue or value because of the new competitor. No resolution was reached. "The discussions have not been finished, but they certainly are continuing," Angelos said.

Both sides have agreed to the broad outline of a deal in which baseball's owners agree to subsidize the Orioles in the event the club's revenues, or resale value, fall below a certain benchmark. The pact also calls for the creation of a regional sports network to jointly market the local broadcasts of the Orioles and the Washington team's games.

Fans made phone calls and sent e-mails by the hundreds in attempts to get tickets to see the team, whose home opener will be April 15. The city said the mayor's call center received 300 ticket requests today and the prospective local ownership group has received about 1,000 season-ticket requests in the past week.

Tickets aren't being issued yet, but names of those interested are being compiled by the D.C. investors group. Ticket prices are expected to average about $25, said mayoral assistant Steve Green.

Tuohey said the Expos may not get their new name until Major League Baseball, which now owns the team, selects the new owner. "Essentially, it is the team owner's decision in collaboration with Major League Baseball," Tuohey said, adding his commission expects input, as well.

Among the names the commission has heard: the Senators (the name of the city's last team), the Monuments, the Grays (to honor a Negro leagues team) and the 51s (a reference to D.C.'s drive for statehood). "The other name that has been - no pun intended - batted around is the first name they had, which was the Nationals. It is a great name," Tuohey said.

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