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A Ballpark in Washington

Tuesday, November 30, 2004; Page A18

IT'S NOT uncommon in our line of work to start with a list of the negatives about some candidate or course of action we are about to recommend, after which we arrive at that place known as "on the other hand." In this case, that would take awhile, so let's just state our conclusion early on: The D.C. Council ought to vote today to approve a plan to build a baseball stadium off South Capitol Street along the Anacostia River. To do otherwise risks losing what is probably the city's only shot at bringing baseball back to Washington after an absence of 33 years.

Having a ball team is a good thing for a city -- for an entire metropolitan area -- in many ways. It provides common conversational ground for people from disparate neighborhoods and communities. It serves as a source of pride in good times and diversion in bad. And, in the case of Washington, it has the potential for furthering the redevelopment of a part of town where things have been down for a long time but are starting to look up. It would, above all, put the nation's capital back where it belongs: in the big leagues of this quintessentially American game.

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Now for the negatives. A baseball stadium that is publicly backed and supported (and that could, if things go awfully wrong, make serious inroads on the District's coffers) is a wonderful deal for the team owners of Major League Baseball, who own the Montreal Expos collectively and will stand to get a very good price for them if a nice new ballpark is guaranteed. Baseball's cartel arrangement has given the owners the ability to raise their prices and reduce their risks in ventures such as this. It rankles.

Another problem: Mayor Anthony A. Williams and others didn't do nearly enough to keep in touch with the people of Washington about what they were up to. The widespread opposition that has been revealed in polling since the mayor's plan was announced might have been alleviated had Mr. Williams done a better job of selling -- or just explaining -- it at community meetings.

As things stand, a great many people think the stadium is to be financed by "the taxpayers." In fact, the plan relies primarily on a gross receipts tax on businesses and on levies on the baseball operations, the money coming from ticket sales, refreshments, stadium rental and so on. And while many (not all) students of sports economics are skeptical about the contribution new stadiums make to development, Washington's case is unusual in that a large number of the fans who come to ballgames in the District will be from Maryland and Virginia. The money they bring to the city -- to the ballpark and to the other businesses one hopes will spring up around it -- will be money that would probably not have been spent in the District of Columbia without a baseball team.

This one is not an easy call by any means. The risks are real, and as always when public backing is sought for a stadium in a city that has a lot of unmet needs, there is concern about the financial commitment. In the end, it comes down to the question of whether this area has the interest, the money and the population to support Major League Baseball and make it a paying proposition for Washington. We've been arguing for 20 years and more -- during which time our metropolitan area has continued to grow and prosper -- that it does, and we think that is the strongest and best argument for a new ballpark in Washington.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company