In bow to D.C., MLB rewrites deal on stadium availability

12-days-a-year restriction sore point with council

Baseball

December 11, 2004|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - Major League Baseball is rewriting its D.C. stadium agreement to address a key concern of local council members: the number of days the city can use the new stadium when the team isn't playing there, according to officials close to the stadium deal.

Under a Sept. 29 agreement signed by baseball and Mayor Anthony Williams, the city may use the stadium - targeted for completion in 2008 - for up to 12 days a year for amateur sports or other events when the team, the Washington Nationals, isn't playing at home.

The restriction had been a sticking point with the council, which is to vote Tuesday on final approval for stadium funding. Some members complained that the city should be allotted more stadium access - especially since the city is paying for the facility.

Baseball has recently indicated it considers the 12-day restriction "addressable" and is prepared to compromise with the city on the issue. Neither city officials nor executives at the baseball commissioner's New York offices would say by how many days the District's allowance is being extended.

William N. Hall, a member of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission who has been involved in the negotiations, declined comment. John McHale, a Major League Baseball vice president, would say only that the stadium access issue "has been part of the conversation."

Council reaction was favorable.

"If they are willing to increase the days we can use the stadium, that's like going from second base to third," said Mark Johnson, a spokesman for Council chair Linda Cropp. "That's encouraging. That [issue] was one of the biggies for the chairman."

Baseball has also agreed to strengthen language in the agreement regarding its community obligations, which include creating a foundation to benefit youths.

Cropp has also been pushing for baseball to alter a provision under which the city must pay not-yet-determined compensatory damages if the stadium is not completed by March 2008. It's not yet clear whether baseball will change that requirement. The team, which has relocated from Montreal, will play at 43-year-old RFK stadium while the new stadium is constructed.

Cropp has said the mayor didn't involve her in the negotiations that led to his signing the September deal with baseball, and that she is now trying - right up until Tuesday's vote - to sweeten the deal for the District.

The council has been hoping to win concessions from baseball since Nov. 30, when it gave preliminary approval to the stadium funding plan on a 6-4 vote with three abstentions. Council member Phil Mendelson said yesterday that the abstentions were designed to send a message to baseball that final passage was not secured unless baseball improved the deal's terms for the city.

The members abstaining were Mendelson, Cropp and Kathy Patterson. Assuming no other vote switches, the three have the power to swing Tuesday's vote against the deal.

"The people who abstained knew there were going to be three abstentions," Mendelson said in an interview. "The abstentions weren't because people were torn. We wanted to tell the mayor he didn't have the votes and to say to baseball, `Look at the numbers.' "

Under the original deal, the 41,000-seat stadium is to be funded largely by a gross receipts tax on large businesses. Companies with more than $4 million in annual revenue would be required to pay the tax.

Some council members are considering introducing amendments Tuesday tinkering with the business tax requirements.

One proposal, being circulated to colleagues by Mendelson yesterday, would limit the businesses required to pay the tax to those with annual revenues of $6 million. It would reduce from $26 million to $16 million the amount generated by businesses for the stadium, and raise the gross receipts tax on city utilities 1 percent.

"This reduces the impact of the ballpark fee on businesses," Mendelson said.

Despite its complaints, the council isn't likely to reject the deal. "I want baseball to come to the District of Columbia," Cropp said recently. "The difference perhaps between me and some others is that I don't want baseball to come at any cost."

Cropp was out of town yesterday and unavailable to comment on Tuesday's vote.

On Nov. 30, she won approval for an amendment intended to keep stadium costs in check. If the costs are more than $100 million above current estimates - about $530 million - the city would pursue a cheaper site than the one being planned on the Anacostia River waterfront.

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