Private stadium funds get push in D.C.

Team advocates urge council chair that help will come if she'll back off

Baseball

December 18, 2004|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - Advocates for preserving a Major League Baseball team said yesterday that their strategy involves trying to convince D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp that the city is committed to attracting private stadium financing on its own without being required to do so.

The mayor's office, the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission and business leaders with the Greater Washington Board of Trade all are trying to convince Cropp to drop a requirement - which they consider unnecessary - that a proposed new ballpark be funded with at least 50 percent private money.

The requirement, contained in a Cropp amendment approved Tuesday night, has jeopardized the relocation of the former Montreal Expos to Washington because baseball says the mandate runs contrary to the city's prior commitment to fund the stadium itself.

The Board of Trade, a regional network of business and nonprofit leaders, sent an e-mail to its 1,200 member companies yesterday asking them to call Cropp and "urge her to modify the legislation passed by the council at her request."

The e-mail noted that baseball "was willing to accept Chairman Cropp's original plan to seek private financing." Under that plan, the city would solicit and evaluate private stadium bids. If no acceptable offers were found, the stadium construction bonds would be paid for with public funds.

Lobbying on the issue intensified the past two days with the creation of several new Web sites rallying support for baseball and urging people to sign petitions or contact Cropp.

"We were sitting around after the vote and said we've got to get off the AstroTurf and do something," said John Hlinko, co-founder of DroppCropp.com "We've got 1,000 members in a little more than 24 hours. It's pretty astonishing," said Hlinko, vice president of a public affairs firm specializing in online communications.

Cropp has said she questions whether the city has "the will" to obtain private financing without being pushed. Business leaders and the mayor's office are trying to convince her otherwise and see "if she'd be willing to compromise," said Chris Bender, an aide to Mayor Anthony A. Williams.

"We agreed with the chairman that the language for exploring private financing should go in the bill in the first place. I think we've shown the will to do it," Bender said in an interview.

Cropp could not be reached for comment on the lobbying effort.

Cropp told WTOP radio yesterday that she has met with representatives of a coalition of banks hoping to work out a deal. The city also is looking at a stadium parking deal, and Cropp has explored an arrangement in which a developer would own the stadium and lease it back.

Major League Baseball has said it would accept private financing, but only if it is not mandatory. Baseball told the city in a letter on Tuesday: "If the District wants to pursue alternative private financing, we will have no objection so long as the terms are in compliance with the Baseball Stadium Agreement" signed by the mayor on Sept. 29.

Baseball has since said that Cropp's amendment went too far, and is "wholly unacceptable." The city has until Dec. 31 to lock in a new stadium financing plan. The plan Cropp objected to relied mostly on a gross receipts tax on the city's largest businesses and a tax on stadium concessions.

Cropp told WTOP that she would put the stadium bill back on the agenda at this Tuesday's meeting, but only if there appeared to be movement.

She told the station she'd like to get baseball, the council and the mayor at the negotiating table together. "I would like to have that, so the mayor and the chairman of the council can be together, trying to get a better deal," she said.

"I don't want the deal to be over," Cropp said. "If I wanted it to be over, I would have voted with six of my colleagues who decided the deal was to be over," she said of the 7-6 vote.

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