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Fans, Critics Face A New Ballgame

Cost Colors Views of Deal

By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 22, 2004; Page B01

The cluster of men at Smokey's Barbershop on H Street NE acknowledged yesterday that baseball's return to the District could mean many pleasant afternoons at the ballpark, watching the national pastime.

"I was so happy when Washington got the team," said David Bennett, 51, a retired computer operator, smiling as one of the shop's nine barbers cut his hair.

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But Bennett said his enthusiasm has been tempered in recent weeks by suspicion that a new team would force the District government to make substantial financial sacrifices while it remains unclear how the sport will help the city's blue-collar and middle-class neighborhoods.

"There are so many questions that haven't been answered," Bennett said. "How much will it benefit the citizens of D.C., or will it just benefit Major League Baseball and the owners?"

As the D.C. Council sealed an agreement yesterday that only days ago had seemed close to collapsing, residents and civic, political and business leaders expressed a broad spectrum of sentiment, from elation that baseball is returning to the nation's capital, to dissatisfaction that the city will still be liable for a large portion of the cost, to confusion over how a new stadium would affect the city.

As they filed out of the council's chambers at the John A. Wilson Building after the 7 to 6 vote, advocates for the deal broke into a rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" and embraced in the hallway. "It's hard to control the elation," Neil Alpert, the president of the D.C. Baseball Political Action Committee, said by telephone while his allies celebrated noisily in the background. "Emotions were high, the costs were high, and we were able to hold the deal together."

Baseball, Alpert predicted, will stimulate the city's economy and transform the largely industrial Southeast neighborhood where a new stadium is planned. "That entire neighborhood will be cleaned up," he said. "The people who live there will see their property values go way up, and they will be very happy."

Barbara Lang, president of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, said many of her organization's initial reservations have been eased by the willingness of Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) to seek private financing. The funding could help ease the burden on businesses that would be taxed to pay for the stadium.

Lang also applauded new provisions in the agreement that she said would lessen the cost to the city, including one in which the District and Major League Baseball will share insurance costs. "In the end, we have gotten a much better deal than we would have gotten at the beginning," Lang said.

But opponents of the agreement said the stadium's price tag remains too high for the District, even after council leaders negotiated changes that they say will reduce the potential cost by as much as $193 million.

"The vote today was a step backward," said Ed Lazere, executive director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, which has opposed the use of public money for the stadium. "In the end, we could still be paying up to $600 million for a stadium, mostly or entirely with public funds. This probably remains a more generous deal for Major League Baseball than most stadium deals over the past decade."

In addition, residents' concerns about traffic and parking have not changed since the mayor announced the project in September, said Andy Litsky, an advisory neighborhood commissioner whose district includes the neighborhood where the stadium would be built.

Litsky rejected the suggestion that the stadium would spur commercial construction in a part of the city where developers in recent years have built hotels and office buildings.

"Development is already here, and to say that the stadium is going to spur it is a specious argument at best," he said. "What we need are people to pay real taxes there. What we need are people to live in townhouses and condos over there."

At Smokey's Barbershop, near H and 14th streets NE, patrons questioned whether the construction of the stadium would generate substantial jobs for Washington residents.

Edward Pace, 52, an African American contractor who lives in Northeast, said he believes that black Washingtonians would not be able afford tickets to the games and that the stadium's clientele would mostly come from the suburbs. He said the new stadium is part of a larger economic picture in the District, in which developers are building projects that longtime residents cannot afford.

"It's about white people -- they're getting another toy at our expense," Pace said.

Mark Green, 40, a truck driver, slipped out of a barber's chair after getting his hair cut and said District residents have survived just fine for 33 years since the Washington Senators left town.

Still, Green said he expects to turn out for the games.

"I never really got a chance to know about baseball," he said. "It's something new."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company