MLB bends on stadium deal in D.C.

Game now appears open to hearing funding issues

Baseball

December 10, 2004|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - On Dec. 2, Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig said he had "a deal" with the city over stadium funding, and that he wasn't inclined to change it.

A week later, though, baseball seems willing to make at least minor concessions to show its sensitivity to the concerns of a handful of D.C. Council members that the stadium deal is too costly.

The council holds its final vote on stadium funding Tuesday, and, according to officials involved in the talks, baseball wants to demonstrate that it is not oblivious to funding issues raised by the members.

One probable concession, officials said, is for baseball to strengthen language in the stadium agreement regarding the team's community obligations.

An agreement signed by Mayor Anthony Williams and baseball on Sept. 29 says the newly relocated team - formerly the Montreal Expos - "acknowledges a civic responsibility" requiring it to sponsor a community benefits package. The package is to include the creation of a youth foundation and a program to make games more affordable for inner-city kids.

Skeptical council members said at their Nov. 30 meeting that the agreement's language was too soft. In response, baseball is likely to "amplify and clarify" its commitment to the youth programs, said one of the negotiators, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

It's uncertain how far baseball will go to address other, more serious council objections. These include provisions specifying that the District must pay a penalty if the stadium isn't built by March 2008, and limiting the city's stadium use to 12 days a year.

"These have all come up," D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission member William Hall said yesterday. "We have ongoing discussions with Major League Baseball about the issues council members have raised."

The agreement has a Dec. 31 deadline for the city to finalize stadium funding, or risk losing the team.

Without altering the deal's foundation, baseball is willing to consider alterations, said John McHale, a Major League Baseball vice president who was involved in the negotiations over the Expos' relocation.

With respect to the community benefits commitment, McHale said: "Yes, we are very open to trying to provide more certainty and specificity if the mayor wishes us to."

Under the September agreement, the city would fund a new 41,000-seat stadium - estimated by the D.C. chief financial officer to cost $530 million - with a gross receipts tax on large businesses, a tax on stadium concessions and stadium rent paid by the team's not-yet-selected owners. In return, the city would get the team, now called the Washington Nationals.

The council gave preliminary approval to the plan by a 6-4 vote on Nov. 30. Chairwoman Linda Cropp, one of three members who abstained to keep their options open, urged the mayor and his representatives to renegotiate with baseball to try to get a better deal.

The mayor is trying to strike a balance between sticking to the deal he signed and not disregarding the passionate reservations raised in the council, said Williams spokesman Chris Bender.

"He doesn't want to go back on a signed agreement," Bender said. "But politically there are certain things [baseball] can choose to do that will make their arrival into town a lot easier. This is a very political environment, much more so than other cities they have dealt with and I think they now realize that."

The council already has tinkered with the agreement on its own. On Nov. 30, it approved a Cropp amendment under which stadium costs are to be re-evaluated by the city before the facility is built. If the costs are more than $100 million above current estimates, the city would pursue a cheaper site than the one baseball agreed to on the Anacostia River waterfront.

Asked what baseball has told him about that amendment, Hall said only: "They've certainly raised questions about it."

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