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Community Responses Mixed to Baseball Payoff

By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 21, 2004; Page C08

At the Mount Pleasant Neighborhood Library in Northwest Washington, steam pipes are leaking, paint is peeling, windows are nailed shut and carpets are stained. For several days last month, the building was closed because the heat wasn't working.

Chief Librarian Ellen E. Kardy has a 15-page plan to renovate the 79-year-old building, but year after year the city fails to fund the $6 million facelift.

Leslie Mtewa, center, manager of Francis A. Gregory Neighborhood Library in Southeast Washington, discusses needed repairs. The 27-branch D.C. library system would get $45 million from the community investment package. (Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)

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In a remarkable turn of events, however, the District's 27-branch public library system suddenly stands to reap $45 million -- enough to build eight libraries or renovate 17. It's an unimaginable windfall for an agency whose operating budget is $29 million.

And it will be made possible only if the D.C. Council approves a plan offered by Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) that has polarized the city: using hundreds of millions of public dollars to build a baseball stadium along the Anacostia River in Southeast.

The money for libraries is the centerpiece of an evolving community investment package that has been added to the legislation. Other neighborhood perks, negotiated by D.C. Council members, include $5 million for a sports and learning complex in Ward 8, $2 million for laptop computers for students at McKinley Technology High School and $10 million to develop plans for a hospital.

During the past month, as the merits of a stadium have been debated, Williams and his allies have contended that the ballpark will spawn investment across the city. Stadium opponents, meanwhile, have countered that the neighborhood benefits will be minimal and that the project will draw resources from more pressing needs.

But for some who stand to gain immediately, the impact is clear: Like it or not, talk of a new stadium has created a political climate that could bring money for long-dormant projects.

"Trying to fix everything here drives me crazy because it takes so much time out of my day," Kardy said on a recent morning as workers banged on leaking pipes. "Sometimes it's sad to think that it takes a baseball stadium to bring the money, but if so, I guess I'll take it."

Chris Bender, a spokesman for Williams, said that "people spoke of the need to make sure there was an equal investment between baseball and basic community needs. We found a legislative way to do that and did it."

Yet many civic activists believe the community investment package is an insufficient trade-off for a public stadium project.

"I feel the council members should not be bought for that low price," said Ahmed Assalaam, a Ward 6 activist who is angry that the city has yet to build a hospital east of the Anacostia River after closing D.C. General several years ago. "All these years you tell me you can't afford a hospital, and now you find all the money you've been looking for all this time for a baseball stadium?"

These competing points of view have had some council members wrestling with their consciences, trying to decide at what price they will sign on to the mayor's plan.

Williams has proposed paying for the stadium, estimated by various city officials to cost $440 million to $584 million, through a gross receipts tax on large businesses, a concession tax and an annual rent payment by the team.

When Williams revealed the plan in September -- shortly after Major League Baseball announced that it would move the Expos from Montreal to Washington -- there was no community investment fund attached.

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