The D.C. Council yesterday began considering whether the city should use public dollars to build a stadium for its new baseball team, drawing a raucous crowd of supporters and opponents to an all-day hearing.
With more than 300 people on hand at 10 a.m., supporters wearing red Washington Senators hats got early prime seating because opponents were staging a rally outside. Despite efforts to maintain order, the hearing was interrupted twice by people who shouted out of turn and were removed by police.
Tony Stover of the District and Pete Glass of Waldorf debate whether public money should be spent on a stadium.
(Melina Mara - The Washington Post)
Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), whose stadium financing package has been the focus of protests for weeks, did not testify and avoided the fifth floor of the Wilson Building during the first 10 hours of testimony, saying he watched a live broadcast on the city's cable channel. In an interview after a midday news conference announcing a traffic control initiative, Williams said he was confident that the stadium will be built.
"It's going to happen," Williams said, although the project requires the approval of the 13-member council. Asked why he chose not to testify, Williams said: "Everyone knows my views. It's important that people disassociate their opinions of baseball from their opinions of me."
After hearing from three dozen of the scheduled 250 witnesses, the 10 council members in attendance appeared to be holding firm to their initial positions -- four in favor of the plan, three against and three offering conditional support.
Opponents of the stadium plan contended that Williams has failed to adequately defend his deal with Major League Baseball to move the Expos from Montreal to Washington in the spring. So far, Williams, who left town for 11 days on a tour of Asia earlier this month, has attended one community meeting to discuss the plan.
One former mayor was in the room: Marion Barry, who is running as the Democratic candidate for a Ward 8 council seat on Tuesday, entered the chamber to scattered applause at 4:20 p.m. -- 6 1/2 hours after the hearing began.
"I am opposed to this financing plan," Barry told the council, noting that Abe Pollin, owner of the Washington Wizards basketball team, paid for much of the construction of MCI Center while Barry was mayor. "This is the biggest stickup by Major League Baseball since Jesse James was doing train robberies."
Afterward, Barry said in an interview that he will continue to try to stop the deal. "Nobody could refute what I said," he added.
Barry was the highest-profile of the numerous stadium opponents, who said the plan is a poor way to use public dollars and will not bring significant economic development to the city. Supporters of the stadium, which would be built on the Anacostia waterfront in Southeast, said it would spur economic revitalization and bring renewed pride and excitement to a city that lost its team 33 years ago.
The cost of the stadium was thrown into question late Wednesday, when the city's chief financial officer, Natwar M. Gandhi, estimated the total package at $530 million, more than the mayor's figure of $440 million. The stadium would be funded through a gross receipts tax on large businesses, a tax on concessions and an annual rent payment by the team.
Greg Rhett, a board member for the Marshall Heights Community Development Group, said: "No one gave us any information until the deal was struck. Now we're told, 'Take it or leave it.' As a taxpayer and voter, that's unfair."
William A. Hanbury, president of the Washington DC Convention and Tourism Corp., said the team and stadium would generate an estimated 84,000 hotel room reservations a year.
"This is an important investment in keeping our competitive edge and enhancing our overall image as a destination," Hanbury said.