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Community Responses Mixed to Baseball Payoff

But after protests from civic activists and council members, Williams instructed his staff to develop a way to bring additional investments to neighborhoods. Aides settled on a plan to create a special district around the ballpark and to allocate tax money from businesses in that district to neighborhood projects, a concept known as tax-increment financing.

The plan, aides said, could generate up to $450 million after the stadium is built in 2008. Council members immediately brought their ward wish lists to the administration.

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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Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5) said he asked for $150 million for a hospital on the site of D.C. General, before settling for the $10 million hospital study and $2 million for McKinley Tech.

"I would always have voted for baseball, but when the community benefit package came along, I looked at the needs of community, and that's one of the needs that I saw and wanted allocated," Orange said.

Sandy Allen (D-Ward 8) was concerned that her constituents have been largely left out of the city's recent economic renaissance. So she took her cause to the mayor and got $40 million for economic investment along major Ward 8 avenues, as well as the $5 million to build a sports and learning center.

Barry Hunter, who coaches a youth boxing team at the Bald Eagle Community Center in Ward 8, was thrilled. His team shares a cramped space with many other programs, and he longs for a computer lab where his team can do homework.

"We do not want to lose kids to the streets based on the facility we have," Hunter said.

But some activists said the administration is making promises that will not be kept. They say the tax-increment financing district would not generate enough revenue to raise bonds of $450 million because economists have said that stadiums generally do not draw significant development.

"The money set aside for baseball is real, but the money set aside for other things may not be," said Ed Lazere, co-leader of a group that opposes using public funds for the stadium.

Even the D.C. Library Renaissance Project, founded by Ralph Nader and run by Leonard Minsky, opposed the mayor's community investment package. Minsky issued a news release saying that although money for libraries is important, the city should not build the stadium with public money and instead should invest in more social programs.

Stadium opponents point out that although administration officials say the ballpark will create revenue, the mayor is using $30 million already in city coffers to help launch the community investment fund. That money could be used for neighborhood projects regardless of whether a stadium is built, the activists said.

Bender described the $30 million as "seed money" that will give the city time to build the stadium and attract businesses whose tax money will increase the community fund exponentially.

Furthermore, Bender stressed, the $30 million was not taken from already budgeted programs. Rather, he said, half was surplus revenue from last year, and the other half was money the federal government had until recently forced the District to keep in reserve.

Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) has been perhaps the most conflicted council member. Lobbied hard by Williams aides who saw him as a key seventh vote, Graham came on board only after the administration promised to give $45 million to the libraries.

Graham insisted that the city use a more secure revenue stream to pay for his pet project than the tax-increment financing district. To appease him, the administration agreed to increase the gross receipts tax on large businesses by $2 million a year and use that to pay debt service on $45 million in bonds.

Graham bristles at the notion that the mayor bought his vote.

"This not a Christmas tree," Graham said. "But you have a baseball stadium, which it's clear to everybody that I do not have that much independent enthusiasm for, and I saw this as opportunity to really leverage it."

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