Financing May Block Baseball In District
City Wants Franchise Before Passing Taxes
By Lori Montgomery and Thomas Heath
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, May 19, 2004; Page B01
In the drawings, a baseball stadium flares to life in the heart of the nation's capital. The Washington Monument towers in the distance. City residents, federal workers and tourists stroll down streets newly lined with shops and posh cafes on their way to cheer a ball team, the home team, for the first time in Washington in more than 30 years.
The stands, of course, are packed.
D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams offered this vision two weeks ago to Major League Baseball officials considering a new home for the ailing Montreal Expos. To bring it to life, Williams (D) promised to provide full public financing for a 41,000-seat stadium at any of four D.C. locations, one of them near L'Enfant Plaza, within walking distance of the Mall.
Baseball officials said they were impressed. One said the L'Enfant Plaza site could be "a real jewel." But as the owners' relocation committee meets today in New York to discuss the Expos' future, people in and around baseball say Washington has yet to remove a major obstacle to winning the team: establishing legal authority for its stadium financing plan.
Baseball insiders say pretty maps and drawings are all well and good, but they want a stadium package signed, sealed and delivered before they move the Expos to a permanent home. A decision could come this year. But D.C. Council leaders adamantly refuse to vote on a financing package -- likely to include millions of dollars in new business taxes -- until baseball makes a commitment.
"When they tell me they're going to put a team here, we'll get the job done," said Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), chairman of the council's finance committee. "Why would I pass a tax through this council, then have baseball say they're going to Las Vegas?"
Texas Rangers owner Tom Hicks, one of eight relocation committee members who listened to Williams's pitch two weeks ago, said the District must make good on its promises before baseball would make a final decision.
"That was one of the impressive parts of the [District's] presentation, that they represented that they could get it done," Hicks said.
It's unclear how the standoff can be resolved. Williams and other city officials said they are confident that the appeal of the Washington market will overcome any uncertainties in their proposal.
The District lies at the heart of the nation's fifth-largest metropolitan area, and its residents claim among the highest levels of disposable income in the United States, according to city officials. Most of the District's competitors for the Expos represent much smaller markets with unproven ability to support a major league team, they said.
In addition to Las Vegas, the bidders are Northern Virginia; Hampton Roads, Va., near Norfolk; Portland, Ore.; and Monterrey, Mexico.
"The competition can't match us," said council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D).
On the other hand, Washington has chased baseball teams away. Two different versions of the Washington Senators packed up and left town. The first became the Minnesota Twins in 1960, and the second became the Texas Rangers in 1972. Although the Washington Redskins consistently sell out FedEx Field in suburban Prince George's County, the basketball Wizards and the hockey Capitals are struggling to fill seats seven years after moving to their new downtown home at MCI Center.
There's also the matter of the Baltimore Orioles, whose owner, Peter Angelos, opposes a team in Washington. Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, who is said to be loyal to Angelos, has consistently opposed moving teams to markets where they might steal fans from established franchises.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company