D.C., Cropp reach funding compromise

Council OK still needed in bid to retain new team

December 21, 2004|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - Mayor Anthony A. Williams and D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp reached an agreement last night that they expected to revive baseball's once-planned return to the city by altering the terms of a half-billion-dollar stadium-funding bill.

The deal - the equivalent of a negotiating home run - was announced shortly before midnight. It still must be approved by the full council, which is meeting today. Baseball had appeared on track a few other times in recent weeks only to have the deal blow up - mostly because of Cropp's objections.

Still, the mayor was optimistic that the latest agreement would salvage the city's bid for the former Montreal Expos by removing a stadium provision that Major League Baseball considered objectionable.

That provision, approved by the council one week ago, mandated at least 50 percent private funding of a proposed stadium for the team in Southeast Washington. Cropp had said private financing was needed because the city's fiscal burden is otherwise too great.

But Major League Baseball said relying on private financing runs contrary to a Sept. 29 deal in which the mayor committed to building the stadium with public money. Baseball ordered the team - now called the Washington Nationals - to stop selling tickets and merchandise after Cropp's amendment was approved a week ago.

Yesterday, however, Cropp was assured by the mayor that viable private financing was available and that the city would pursue it.

She won other concessions, too, which were still being detailed as midnight approached. They were said to address her concerns that the city not be subject to burdensome penalties should the stadium not be built on time.

An agreement signed by the mayor on Sept. 29 pledged the stadium would be constructed by March 2008.

Earlier in the day, Cropp had agreed to place the matter on the agenda for today's council meeting, indicating progress was being made.

For hours yesterday, an agreement seemed just out of reach.

Cropp, leaving her office at 7:45 p.m., said nothing was settled yet. "We're still working. I'll be back if the concerns are addressed," said Cropp, declining to elaborate.

She returned to the John A. Wilson Building at about 10 p.m., but did not immediately provide further details on where things stood.

The city has until Dec. 31 to lock in the funding or risk losing the team.

In yesterday's talks, the mayor's staff sought to assure Cropp that there are many workable private finance options, and that the city is committed to tap into them without being required to.

"What we've tried to demonstrate is that some of these plans are mature enough," said Chris Bender, a Williams spokesman. "She has a level of assurance that there is meat and potatoes private financing."

One option raised in the talks was to seek the assistance of the city's chief financial officer, Natwar M. Gandhi, to assess private financing proposals. Gandhi operates independent of the mayor and could bring credibility to the private funding options the city is studying.

"I think the CFO is going to play a major role in whether or not we have baseball," said council member Kevin P. Chavous, who has supported the mayor's plan.

It was not immediately certain how the financial officer figured in the agreement that was finally completed.

To get baseball's approval, Cropp needed to revise a key sentence of her amendment. That sentence says that if no private plan is found by June, the stadium deal would expire.

Deleting that language would keep stadium funding alive whether or not private money was secured.

Cropp's original amendment, approved on a 10-3 vote and attached to a larger, $534 million funding bill, applies only to stadium construction - estimated at about $280 million - and not related costs such as land acquisition or subway upgrades.

That means, she said, that the city needs to attract about $140 million in outside money to satisfy her amendment's requirements.

Yesterday's talks involved, at various times, the mayor and his staff, Cropp and her aides and representatives of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission. The mayor and Cropp met face-to-face for about 15 minutes at midday, then spoke on the phone several times, according to aides.

Cropp herself could be the decisive vote on whether baseball returns. After her amendment was approved last week, the larger stadium package passed on a 7-6 vote with Cropp's backing.

"There are still six votes that are against public financing, that's clear," said council member Adrian Fenty, who voted against the deal. "Cropp obviously is key."

Getting a team has long been a priority for the mayor, who has said the franchise and stadium "could mean billions of dollars in new development that will revitalize Southeast Washington." The team would play at RFK Stadium while the new facility was built.

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