washingtonpost.com  > Metro > The District
Page 2 of 2  < Back  

For Mayor, Baseball Rife With Risk

The mayor has set up a baseball "war room" and hired an outside consultant to help sharpen his message. Each evening, city officials fan out to community meetings. Williams has personally briefed the council and about a dozen advisory neighborhood commissioners from the Ward 6 community that would be home to the new stadium. A spokeswoman said the mayor hopes to make more public appearances before he leaves for China on Thursday.

In those sessions and in meetings with reporters, Williams argues that his stadium plan would cost District residents virtually nothing, while showering the city with benefits, both economic and intangible. The 41,000-seat stadium would be built near the Anacostia waterfront just east of South Capitol Street, bringing jobs and development to a blighted part of town. It would draw sports fans from Maryland and Virginia, redirecting their recreation dollars to hotels, bars and restaurants in the District.

Supporters say Anthony Williams demonstrated tenacity and vision in his quest for baseball. Skeptics question financing, point to other dire needs in the District. (Dudley M. Brooks -- The Washington Post)

Williams said the bill for the stadium would be paid not by average taxpayers but by people who get direct benefits from the team. The city would issue as much as $500 million in revenue bonds and repay the debt with cash from three sources: the team owners, who would give the city a lease payment of about $5.5 million a year; baseball fans, who would contribute sales taxes on tickets, hot dogs and other stadium-related items; and the city's 2,000 largest businesses, which would pay a temporary tax on gross receipts ranging from $3,000 to $28,200 annually.

Skeptics, including several council members, have questioned Williams's assurances that those revenue streams would cover the $440 million estimated cost of the ballpark and related expenses, saying the administration has failed to account for roads and infrastructure. They point out that the city would be responsible for any cost overruns. And they are vowing to fight the imposition of a gross receipts tax on businesses, saying it makes no sense to raise taxes for a stadium when the city could use the money for other pressing needs.

Former mayor Marion Barry, who last month won the Democratic nomination to represent Ward 8 on the council, is among those working to block the deal.

"I'm unalterably opposed to tax money being spent to build this baseball stadium," Barry said. "With these raggedy schools we have around here? Put a gross receipt [tax] on [for] them. Fix those up."

In response, Williams has taken to calling the business tax a "ballpark fee," noting that a similar levy was imposed to build the city's new convention center. Administration officials point out that the stadium cost estimates include a substantial cushion to cover cost overruns and other unforeseen expenses, and that the three sources of revenue are expected to generate far more cash annually than will be needed to repay the bond debt.

The mayor and council leaders also are trying to rework the stadium legislation so that the economic benefits of baseball can be measured, captured and funneled toward community deficiencies, including crumbling schools and outdated recreation centers.

But Williams is finding it more difficult to address a more fundamental sense of outrage, rooted in the notion that baseball got his attention like nothing else and that he gave away the store.

"He's persuading baseball teams to move here, but he's not up at the council persuading people we need a new library. . . . They don't have a war room to fix our schools," said John Capozzi, a Democratic activist who is helping to organize opposition to the stadium plan. "I have two kids in public school. If the mayor can do this -- and I sort of agree with you that it was a big achievement to get a team -- well, fix my problem."

Williams said his inability to improve the city's failing school system is "a huge frustration." But the problem with the schools is not a lack of cash, he said. Since he took office, he said, the city has dramatically increased spending on education. He said he also has pumped an extra $1 billion into housing, $250 million into parks, $40 million to $50 million into libraries -- all the things people accuse him of neglecting.

Williams said historians will give him "a good amount of the credit" for Washington's renaissance. A baseball team will enhance the city's stature, he said, greasing the cogs of an economic engine that must be kept humming if the city ever hopes to lift up the poor.

Williams has not decided whether to seek reelection, saying he plans to make a decision by the end of the year.

"I would do this baseball thing even if I knew I would not be reelected," he said, "because I think it's right for the long-term interest of the city."

< Back  1 2

© 2004 The Washington Post Company