The Washington Nationals secured a home yesterday when a divided D.C. Council narrowly approved legislation that allows baseball to return to the nation's capital after 33 years.
With a vote of 7 to 6, the council adopted a stadium package that contains several amendments to the original deal Mayor Anthony A. Williams struck with Major League Baseball in September. After three seasons at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, beginning in April, the former Montreal Expos are scheduled to move to a new ballpark along the Anacostia waterfront in 2008.
Council member Vincent B. Orange Sr. celebrates with a baseball bat during the news conference.
(Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)
The council's action came a day after a marathon negotiating session between Williams (D), council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) and baseball officials, who found a middle ground between cost savings measures the council added last week and stadium funding guarantees sought by baseball officials.
The move punctuated weeks of debate among residents of Washington and its suburbs about the use of public financing to pay for a ballpark and officially returned baseball to the District for the first time since the Senators left for Texas in 1971.
"Finally and at last, all of us have risen above the fray, and the Washington Nationals are rounding third and heading for home," Williams said at a news conference. "Isn't that great?"
Under the deal approved yesterday, a gross receipts tax on large businesses and a utilities tax on businesses and federal offices will provide the funding to pay off the bonds that will finance part of the construction. The city will continue to search for private financing to cover at least 50 percent of the cost of the ballpark.
Also, the District and Major League Baseball will share the cost of insurance against cost overruns. And if the stadium does not open by March 2008, the city will be liable for $5.3 million, one year's rent for RFK, compared with $19 million or more in the original deal.
"In the end, we provided a better deal," Cropp said.
Referring to the often heated negotiations, Cropp added: "What happened the last few weeks and months should have happened. It's a sign of good government."
The council's action ended a week of tension for Cropp, Williams and baseball officials. The council had mandated last week that private funding pay for half the construction. Williams was furious and did not talk with Cropp for several days. Baseball officials immediately said they would no longer negotiate with the city, setting off fears among area fans that the team would not come to Washington.
Yesterday, baseball officials, who had set a Dec. 31 deadline for approval of an acceptable financing package, agreed to the city's deal and announced that the Nationals will resume local operations. A week ago, baseball officials halted all business activities because of uncertainty about the financing.
"We are also pleased that our discussions with Washington's elected leaders over the last several days have helped each side better understand the concerns of the other," Commissioner Bud Selig said in a statement. "We are now more confident than ever of a long and productive relationship with the city."
Nationals President Tony Tavares said that season tickets will go back on sale and that the team will contact the 563 fans who asked to have their deposits returned to see if they are still interested. The team's only merchandise store, a heated trailer in a parking lot outside RFK Stadium, will reopen at 8 a.m. today.
Tavares said that a ceremony that would have unveiled the team's uniforms was canceled last week but that fans can see uniform jerseys at the store.