Stadium financing has its issues, but it's D.C.'s problem, not ours

December 23, 2004|By PETER SCHMUCK

IN THE WAKE of yesterday's diatribe about Washington's ridiculously generous ballpark financing deal, several readers were quick to point out that people who live near a certain glass house known as M&T Bank Stadium should think twice before throwing self-righteous stones.

Maryland gave away the farm long before Washington even thought about its controversial Cropp subsidy plan, handing Art Modell and the transplanted Cleveland Browns such a sweet deal that Modell was eventually shamed into trading back millions in PSL revenues to calm public outrage.

Don't hold your breath waiting for the same kind of largesse from Major League Baseball, which included in its "compromise" with the District Council an agreement to drop the provision in the original stadium financing deal that would have entitled baseball owners to compensatory damages if their free ballpark wasn't finished on time.

And you thought they were just a bunch of selfish millionaires who only care about themselves.

The Maryland Stadium Authority gave the Orioles a pretty nice arrangement when they built Oriole Park, but the deal that brought the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore was so much better that Peter Angelos sued to enforce a parity clause in his stadium contract and was awarded naming rights and millions in ballpark upgrades.

So, maybe we ought to mind our own business and keep buying those scratch-off tickets and let the people of the District worry about whether they can support nearly $600 million in construction bonds. Not our problem ... or is it?

The stadium complex at Camden Yards was sold as an alternative to the possible relocation of the Orioles to Washington, so at least we can say we got our civic arm twisted. We also took the original plunge based on the assumption that Oriole Park would be the only major league ballpark within a 100-mile radius - an assumption that made it easier to commit all that lottery money that otherwise could have been raised for schools, police and other frivolous municipal expenditures.

OK, we were a little naive, but Baltimore was in the throes of a huge sports inferiority complex at the time. The Bullets had moved to Washington. The Colts had skipped town. The trendy new Inner Harbor was changing the image of the downtown area, but there was widespread agreement that a sports complex would complete the re-emergence of Baltimore as a major league city.

Washington Mayor Anthony Williams is saying the same kind of things about the Anacostia waterfront area, and he may turn out to be right, but the District isn't some mid-size metropolis looking for a new identity. It's the nation's capital and one of the greatest tourist meccas in the world.

The Nationals will just be another summer attraction, positioned nicely to exploit the well-heeled elite of a city that probably should have better things to do with a half-billion dollars than hand it over - with few strings attached - to a sports franchise.

This isn't about Angelos. He has proved that he can take care of himself. It's about a D.C. Council so desperate to make this deal that the thing went through despite polls showing that more than half of the citizens in the area are opposed to full public financing.

Council Chairman Linda Cropp struck a chord when she stood up for those people last week and said that the original deal wasn't in the best interests of the city. It's too bad that she let herself be talked off her position so easily, because baseball really had nowhere else to go.

No doubt, any criticism from Baltimore will be viewed as myopic Washington-bashing or, worse, provincial Orioles protectionism, but the Anacostia stadium deal should be judged on its own civic and economic merits.

Right now, it's a tough sell.

Contact Peter Schmuck at peter.schmuck @baltsun.com.

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