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On National TV, Williams Presses Case for Baseball

By David Nakamura and Thomas Heath
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, December 20, 2004; Page A08

D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams took his case for baseball to a national audience yesterday, declaring on network television that his political future could ride on completing a deal for a Washington team.

Williams, facing a key meeting today with D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp, said on "Fox News Sunday With Chris Wallace" that building a stadium for the Washington Nationals is a smart move for the city, even if a majority of residents object to using public funds for the project.

Sometimes "you're elected to do what you think is in the best long-term interests of the city," Mayor Williams said on "Fox News Sunday" as he trumpeted the stadium deal. (Freddie Lee -- Fox News)

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"You're elected not to be . . . a mirror and just reflect what people are saying," Williams said. "Ten, 20 percent of the time, you're elected to do what you think is in the best long-term interests of the city. And if people don't agree with that, they can throw you out the next time. And I think this is one of those issues."

Williams and Cropp, who are Democrats, are scheduled to meet for the first time since Dec. 14, when Cropp added an amendment to the stadium-financing deal to require that at least 50 percent of the cost of a new stadium is funded with private money.

Major League Baseball rejected that deal, saying that by Dec. 31, the District must return to the original agreement signed by Williams in September. That deal stipulates that a stadium along the Anacostia River in Southeast Washington -- estimated by city officials to cost $440 million to $584 million -- would be paid for largely through a gross receipts tax on businesses. The council has since reduced the business tax by agreeing to pay for some of the construction with a utilities tax on businesses and office buildings.

If the city does not ensure that a stadium will be built by 2008, baseball officials could decide to remove the Nationals from Washington and have the team play elsewhere next season.

The council can reconsider the stadium legislation in its scheduled meeting tomorrow, but Cropp would have to agree to that by 10 a.m. today, when she sets the agenda. Cropp has promised to suspend the council's holiday recess so she can call another meeting before year's end.

Mark Johnson, Cropp's spokesman, said yesterday that the agenda is flexible. "But the chairman wants to see something worthy of discussion," he said.

That's why Williams considers today's meeting with Cropp so important. Although Cropp has requested that baseball officials participate in today's meeting, that appears unlikely to happen. Baseball President Robert A. DuPuy declined yesterday to comment on the deal.

One of Major League Baseball's contract attorneys, Richard A. Weiss, who specializes in sports industry law and ballpark financing, has been in frequent communication with Mark Tuohey, chairman of the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission, according to baseball sources who spoke on condition they not be identified.

Tuohey and Weiss declined to comment yesterday when reached by telephone. Sources said Weiss probably is advising Tuohey and others on how to construct a viable, private-financing plan.

Chris Bender, a spokesman for Williams, said the mayor will emphasize to Cropp that several private-financing plans exist that could be finalized by spring.

Major League Baseball has never had a problem with private financing. But baseball officials want a guarantee in the financing deal that a stadium will be built even if the city does not find a viable private funding option. Officials have said they would be satisfied with a clause that says if the District cannot find private funds, the city will pay for the stadium.

One proposal from the Gates Group, a Cleveland-based private equity firm, would give the city $100 million in exchange for revenue generated from a special parking district around the stadium. Another proposal would allow developers to build larger buildings near the stadium in exchange for a payment to the city. And a third plan would have the city sell space on the ballpark's first floor to retail stores that would face the street.

Baseball sources said Norfolk is considered a primary alternate home for the former Montreal Expos franchise if the Washington baseball deal falls through. Sources said Norfolk is attractive because it is in the same time zone as Washington and is more easily accessible to other National League East division cities than such other candidates as Las Vegas and Portland, Ore.

Will Somerindyke, chief executive of Norfolk Baseball Co., said yesterday that Norfolk will wait to see what happens to the District's deal before renewing its bid.

Meanwhile, four D.C. Council members who voted against the stadium deal have scheduled a news conference for 11 a.m. today. Several business groups, including the Greater Washington Board of Trade, have pushed Cropp to soften her stance.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company